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2016, an election year in the United States of America.  Without specifying any bias and without trying to sound naive, I will suggest that the election will be contentious and mean-spirited to a greater magnitude than most presidential elections are.  In the past year we have seen a spate of violence in our communities between legal authorities and citizens in our black communities.  This has even given birth to a “Black Lives Matter” movement.  ISIS has created havoc worldwide because as the lands of their caliphate are being diminished by coalition forces hunting them down, so they have exported violence to France, Britain, Belgium, the United States and the end does not appear to be near.  All of this is done in the name of religion.  Brexit has revived some of the old animosities that have plagued the European continent for centuries and created two world wars.  Even in sports and entertainment, there is rancor.  International soccer has been plagued by corruption and in-fighting among its leaders.  Taylor Swift and Kanye West have re-kindled their bitter feud.  Anger seems to abound.

None of this, I guess, is surprising.  The world has been at war 94% of human history.  Only the first and the second centuries AD during the Pax Romana did mankind live in the nest of security that common people could develop their talents, their societies, and their homes and families without fear of the ravages of war touching their lives or the repression of a conquering force.  We have recently concluded what historians consider to be the worst century of humankind—the 20th century—fraught with two total wars, genocides, and the introduction of the potentiality of a nuclear holocaust. The 20th century is rivaled only by the 14th century which encompassed the Black Death (bubonic plague) and the Hundred Years War as more detrimental to the people of the planet.

Does this mean that all humans quickly shift into their “dinosaur brain” and move into a highly defensive and war-like mode when confronted by other human beings?  Are people so aggressive and self-serving that they will hurt their fellow man by instinct?  I doubt it.  What makes the pages of history are the stories that involve the social forces of politics, economics, culture, military/physical, religious, ideological and technology.  They are the dynamic forces that alter the course of history and create turning points and are interesting and usually are beyond the control of the Great Man/Woman of history.  The human story—history—becomes a weaving of those forces and their impact on the actions of man.  But there is an underside of the story.  Often times it does not grace the pages of history books because it is not as interesting as those stories that are motivated by dynamic social forces.  But it is important to note that there were many individuals who lived their lives in obscurity of the spotlight of history.  Will Durant, a popular historian who wrote the multi-volume set of the development of civilization has said it well:

We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written (peccavimus) is quite different from the history that is usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting—-because it is exceptional……Behind the red façade of war, politics, misfortune and poverty, adultery and divorce, murder and suicide, were millions of orderly homes, devoted marriages, men and women kindly affectionate, troubled and happy with children. Even in recorded history we find so many instances of goodness, even nobility, that we can forgive, though not forget, the sins. The gifts of charity have almost equaled the cruelties of battlefields and jails. (The Lessons of History)

Recently, I was reading the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on a Monday morning.  I still have the newspaper delivered to me in print form because I like to have that paper in my hand as I read (old dog; old tricks).  An article by Ruth Ann Dailey, occasional writer, caught my eye with its title “Adams and Jefferson: Rivals with Undying Respect.” (June 27, 2016 PPG) Since it was rooted in the history of the United States and appeared just before our July 4th celebration, I was interested in reading it.  I already knew about the rift between the two, despite the fact that they had worked together on the writing of the Declaration of Independence.  The wedge had been politics.  Adams was a Federalist and Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican.  Jefferson defeated Adams in the controversial 1800 election and before Adams left office he filled many vacant positions in the federal government with his friends including some judgeships which were appointments for life.  In general history books this is referred to as the Midnight Judges debacle later to be decided in a Supreme Court decision which established the principle of judicial review for the third branch of government.  Jefferson was bitter about this because many of the men that Adams appointed were his political enemies and he expressed this to Adams’ wife Abigail.  But as time often does, the sting of that betrayal called “politics” dissipated and they renewed their friendship via weekly letters until they both died on July 4, 1826.

But Dailey piqued my attention when she used the word magnanimity to describe the re-kindling of their relationship.  “Magnanimity is the quality of a great heart.  Mind and heart intertwine, obviously, but generosity of thought is more an expression of character than of intellect.  It is available to all of us, though none of us achieve the intellectual heights of our founders.” Wow!  That’s what we lack today in so many offices of life!  So I explored the term magnanimity with the standard-bearer of the English language, Noah Webster, and here is what he had to say:

Noah Webster of the American Language defines Magnanimity as such:

MAGNANIMITY, n. [L. magnanimitas; magnus, great, and animus, mind.] Greatness of mind; that elevation or dignity of soul, which encounters danger and trouble with tranquility and firmness, which raises the possessor above revenge, and makes him delight in acts of benevolence, which makes him disdain injustice and meanness, and prompts him to sacrifice personal ease, interest and safety for the accomplishment of useful and noble objects.   {Italics added}

Along with Dailey, I would take exception to “greatness of mind” and agree that “magnanimity is the quality of a great heart.”  Look at the words: dignity, tranquility, above revenge, benevolence, avoid meanness, noble.  Those are all classy attributes that are to be admired in any human being.  You do not have to possess a great mind on the order of the founders to exhibit those qualities.  These attributes are available to all of us!

So I began to think of other times in history where magnanimity was served. 

  • At Appomattox Court House when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, he offered his sword to his enemy as a sign of capitulation. Grant chose the noble path of allowing Lee to keep his sword as a sign of mutual respect.
  • Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indian tribe fought and eluded the US Calvary in the Northwest for months when they wanted to put his tribe on a reservation. But when he saw that the effort was fruitless and his people were suffering, he dropped his rifle and in a soulful speech he said “I will fight no more forever.”  Chief Joseph chose to exhibit dignity of the soul.
  • Chester A. Arthur replaced James Garfield as President of the United States after Garfield was felled by an assassin’s bullet. Arthur was known for his corrupt practices as a Customs Collector in New York City and his strong affiliation with machine politics.  But when he ascended to the office of the Presidency, he became a reform-minded President who signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act into law whereby individuals had to take a test to receive a federal workers job and thus be hired on merit, not cronyism.  Arthur chose to disdain injustice.

If we had much more actions like this, the world would be a better place.  I am not that naïve to believe that a light switch called ‘magnanimity’ will change the world.  But probably if we tried to model these actions in our own behavior and expect these actions from the people who we cherish, we could create cocoons of better worlds around us.  I read once of a Middle School in New York State where the teachers became alarmed at the rude and run-a-muck behavior of their students in the time they arrived at school until home room—kicking locker doors, saying things that hurt feelings of more sensitive young people, bumping people to get ahead, etc.  So the teachers decided to stand in halls and practice acts of kindness.  They would compliment a student on their new shoes or how their hair was combed that day; they would reach down and help a student pick up their dropped belongings as they struggled to get to their lockers in a timely manner; they would smile and wave to their students and talk happily among themselves.  What they began to witness over time, emphasis on over time, is that the behavior in the halls began to improve.  (They attributed it to the chaos theory— that of a butterfly flapping its wings over Beijing can cause a thunderstorm in New York.)  Maybe that is our best approach: Export Magnanimity by our own behavior!  After all, it was John Lennon who in his wise ‘naiveté’ penned the words to the song, “All We Are Saying is Give Peace a Chance.”  And you know, he was right.  How about all we are saying is give magnanimity a chance.