When I was 20, I was confronted with the following allegory: imagine that the wisest person who ever lived is dying. As a parting gift to the planet, the wisest one has agreed to travel the world and answer people’s questions. Luckily, after waiting in line for hours, you are able to ask your one question. What is your question?
Actually, this allegory is from a whole family of questions designed to uncover what your values are, intellectual and otherwise. I’m sure you’ve heard of the ones that usually begin with a genie popping out of a bottle and giving you three wishes.
Every year on my birthday (which is the day after this column is published), for the last 49 years, I’ve asked myself the “wisest person” question. In a sense, I am taking my moral temperature. From the start, I would answer the question by asking the wise one the exact same query, in other words, wise man, what would you ask the wisest person? I believed the exercise was designed to identify what I valued the most by the area of inquiry that I eventually chose. Consequently, I thought it might be interesting to find out which query the wisest person valued the most since our questions reflect our values.
However, a couple of my philosophically trained friends claimed that I was avoiding the true purpose of the exercise and demanded that I posit another answer. My second response was and is: What can I do in my lifetime to bring about the greatest degree of social and economic justice? The question reflected my most important value, which was not the solving of any particular philosophical inquiry or private issue, but rather was directed at, in some small way, fixing social injustices.
In 2017, I find that not only would this personal goal be somewhat controversial, the very definition of social and economic justice would have to be defined and debated. So, as my birthday approaches and that question looms, let me suggest a new and equally important goal: preserving important values. What can I do to preserve the lost values of: humility, courtesy, rationality?
Humility is the recognition that we are all fallible. Socrates was recognized as the wisest philosopher of his time largely because he realized that he “knew nothing.” That humble admission was so startling and so wise that, in his time, he was ironically recognized as knowing the most of any human being. A person who admits a mistake and tries valiantly to learn and grow is exhibiting a lost value, one that is sorely missing in today’s world. What concerns me about President Trump (among other things) is the fact that he has never exhibited an iota of humility or self-doubt and lacks the self-awareness that any rational thinker must have.
Courtesy is the simple recognition that everyone deserves to be treated fairly and amiably. We are free to disagree with someone but it should be without discourtesy or personal attacks. The old expression, “hate the sin, not the sinner,” is certainly apropos here. In my 20 years on the town board, I was honored to serve with some wonderful colleagues from both parties. Even if a councilperson submitted a proposal that I heartily opposed, I never exhibited discourtesy or personal animus. I am proud to tell you that I experienced the same level of courtesy from my fellow board members and it made my time on the board truly enjoyable.
Rationality is the most important virtue and is truly at risk in our ever-irrational world. We have only advanced as a species as a result of our ability to reason and do so without prejudice or preconceived notions. Appeals to divide us are as old as the story of Cain and Abel.
People have long gained a feeling of belonging by joining others in the torment of third parties. Our species has a most unfortunate tendency to bond together when hatefully opposing other groups whether it is based on ethnic, religious, racial, sexual or geographic differences. I have seen gang members in the South Bronx who define their allegiances by the street they happened to live on and those who live on a different one are fair game. The Crusades and the activities of ISIS are attributable to the same fanatical and irrational desire to feel like part of a group by striving for the elimination of another. Nationalism itself, while serving some admirable causes, does in the final analysis, define people geographically and ethnically rather than acknowledging that all humans, no matter what their origins, have value. I remember a bumper sticker many years ago which said it all: “One Planet, One People.”
Putting aside the degree to which hate now dominates our politics and our social media, a concurrent concern is our abandonment of rationality. When our president tweets hate for immigrants, right-wing propaganda over evidence, divisiveness over unity—he has endorsed a trend that spells doom for humanity, not only in its appeal to inhumanity, but in its appeal to emotion over reason. Hate and irrationality breed the same over and over again. When President Trump institutes as a prerequisite for scientific inquiry that a certain result be maintained, as he did with the EPA, he has abandoned reason.
Our ability to confront our problems with our most important weapon, our brains, is the only way we will survive as a species. If we are to progress, it is incumbent that we recognize the inherent worth of every human being, no matter where they live or their religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity. So, upon reflection, my answer this birthday to my self-imposed age-old question is one that I hope others adopt as well: What can we do to bring us to together as one people, free of hate and prejudice, and joyous in the realization that our future can be as bright as our imagination?
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