“Happiness is the greatest paradox in nature. It can grow in any soil, live under any conditions.”—William George Jordan, The Majesty of Calmness, 1900
I suspect that many of us learned last year that Jordan’s comment on happiness is true. In spite of a very interesting year, life continued. The sun rose every day and the sources of happiness and joy did not disappear. We also learned the importance of family and connections with others.
There was a lot of contention throughout the year on multiple issues: Race, how to respond to COVID 19, who to support for various government offices, election outcomes … . Good and reasonable people can disagree on most issues. Vigorous discussions that include multiple perspectives nearly always result in better decisions.
Indra Nooyi, CEO (2006–18) and Chairman (2007-2019) of Pepsico, Inc. shared this advice in a 2008 Fortune Magazine article, “Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different.” Imagine how 2020 might have been different had more people followed this counsel. More questions seeking to gain understanding would have been asked and bridges built rather than personal attacks being levied and bridges burned (both literally and figuratively).
Incivility, destruction of property, and acts of violence against others do not create converts to a cause and rarely improve society. In 1787 Alexander Hamilton made these timeless observations in an introduction to a discussion of the proposed US Constitution (Federalist #1):
“So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society.
We are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.
In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”
In my view the solution to our political and social issues will not be found in political parties or special interest groups, but in the moral virtues found in our religions. The golden rule, compassion, and a focus on service are the healing agents we need to move forward. Many of the founders believed that morality and religion were required to sustain our form of government.
In 1798, John Adams wrote in a letter to the Massachusetts Militia, “We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
George Washington included the following in his 1796 Farewell Address:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.”
We are in general a very giving people. Throughout 2020 many lives were blessed through generous contributions to charitable organizations and individual acts of kindness as we took care of family, friends, neighbors, and strangers. Our hearts were softened towards others as many experienced personal trials. And our ability to love and show compassion increased.
Let us take the lessons we’ve learned and the new skills we acquired in 2020 and apply them going forward. Let us focus on becoming better individuals, encouraging the same within our families, and supporting religious institutions. If we all do that then we will end up in a better place. Regardless of whether 2021 brings a reprieve from the challenges of 2020 or we face additional obstacles, happiness and joy can still be part of our lives.