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Richard Kyte: Find joy before changing the world
THE ETHICAL LIFE

Richard Kyte: Find joy before changing the world

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Words of wisdom from Joe: ‘I be happy today; I not be grumpiest.’”

Joe has Down syndrome, and he has figured out something that many of us forget: it is much easier to change oneself than to change the world.

Lately it seems like everyone is out to change the world, and the result is a lot of grumpy people.

The ancient Stoics believed one should always start with oneself, because that is the only thing you can really control. You can control your beliefs, your attitudes, your fears and desires.

You can’t control external things, like the weather, the economy, what people say about you, whether you will be healthy or sick.

In short, some things are under our control and some things are not, and it is important to know the difference.

That was the lesson of King Canute when he placed his throne at the ocean’s edge and commanded the tide to stop. The tide, of course, paid no attention.

As it advanced, wetting his feet and robes, Canute declared, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws.” He used the demonstration to remind his followers that even a king needs humility.

The attempt to change the world by focusing on external matters such as laws, policies and regulations is what we call politics. The attempt to change ourselves by focusing on internal matters like beliefs, attitudes and motivations is what we call religion.

The two approaches are not so much opposed as complementary. The key is balance. It is important to work both internally and externally — on one’s own attitudes and on conditions in the world — and not to confuse the two.

The most widely admired and effective political leaders have been highly attuned to the harmony of the internal and the external. I’m thinking of people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. All three were very effective at bringing people together to make lasting, positive changes in their respective societies, and all three were filled with joy, even when things around them seemed bleak. In Emerson’s words, they “carried the holiday in their eye.”

I don’t know why certain people tend to get so angry when discussing politics, but I suspect that they lack self-control. They do not know how to distinguish the internal from the external, and so they believe they can only be satisfied when they get the outcomes they desire.

That would explain why people who identify with the political extremes tend to be grumpy. They talk about politics as warfare: they use words like “battle,” “defeat,” “destroy,” “annihilate,” “overturn.”

Political centrists are not only more pleasant to spend time with, they have the internal fortitude to stay committed to a cause for the long haul. They use words like “compromise,” “collaborate,” “bargain,” “negotiate” and “persuade.”

That’s not because they don’t believe in getting things to turn out a certain way; it’s just that they don’t believe their world will come to an end if that doesn’t happen.

But there is something deeper going on as well. Centrists may disagree strongly with one another about how society should be structured and what priorities we should set, but they are joined in agreement about the means by which they will pursue their various ends. They agree to be self-governed by a set of rules and principles that place limits on how they will act.

These limits are what we call ethics. They consist of standards regarding truthfulness, fairness, treating one another with respect and refraining from violence and manipulation.

Those who believe their happiness depends solely on getting what they want will always find ways to justify breaking these rules. They will say “the end justifies the means,” which is just another way of saying that ethics does not matter.

I think the defining cultural struggle of our time is not between right-wing and left-wing politics; it is between the extremists on both sides versus the political centrists. In other words, the struggle is between those who agree to be governed by a common set of ethical principles and those who do not.

There are many in our society like Joe — forced by circumstances outside their control to live in a world in which most of the major decisions affecting their lives are determined by others. Yet they find ways to face each day with equanimity and grace.

The rest of us owe it to them to come into the public square with a degree of humility, acknowledging that even though we may not agree about what matters are most important, we can still live in harmony with one another. We can still choose to be kind, truthful merciful, and just.

We can treat one another, even our opponents, with respect and dignity.

For my part, I am grateful to Joe for reminding me that I can decide today to be happy and not be grumpiest.

Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University. He also is a community member of the La Crosse Tribune editorial board.

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