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Richard Kyte: The character of the nation

Richard Kyte: The character of the nation

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A few years ago, I attended a conference in which the speaker asked attendees to write down their answers to three questions: Who were the last three people named Person of the Year by Time magazine? Who are the three wealthiest people in the world? Who were the last three Nobel Peace Prize winners?

After a brief pause the speaker asked those who got all the answers right to raise their hands. Nobody. A few people could name four or five, most only one or two.

Then the speaker asked everyone to write down the answers to another set of questions: Who are three friends who comforted you when you were lonely? Who are three teachers who gave you confidence? Who are three friends who stood by you in difficult times?

Nearly everyone could answer those questions with no trouble. We know the people who have been most influential in our own lives, and they tend to be people only a few others know well.

We tend to overrate the influence of famous people in our lives, or perhaps we simply misunderstand the kind of influence they have. Those who reach the pinnacle of success in some realm or other may have a great deal of influence over technological developments, policy decisions, or economic conditions. But they rarely have much influence over character.

When it comes to character, any individual — regardless of their fame or notoriety — has only a superficial influence over a broad segment of society, but even the least publicly visible among us is capable of deep and significant influence over a small number of people within his or her circle of engagement.

That is because character is shaped through the formation of virtues and vices which take time to develop. The process today is the same as when Aristotle first described it. Human beings tend to imitate the people they most admire and who are closest to them. That imitation gradually forms into habits, and habits shape their perception — the ways in which they see and thus respond to events and people around them.

Discussion regarding political contestants tends to mistake the significance of character in two ways: overestimating the extent to which a candidate’s good or bad behavior might “rub off” on the general population and underestimating the ways in which character reflects a candidate’s judgement, for good and ill.

During the last few days before an election over which the entire country is anxious and after which a sizable portion of the population will be deeply disappointed, I find it comforting to reflect that the destiny of the nation will not be determined by the outcome. It will still be in our hands.

When the Greek philosopher Heraclitus remarked that “character is destiny,” he was saying that character determines how our life turns out by shaping our choices, not just the big choices but the little choices we make every day.

It is the same with a nation. Who we are determines what we will become, and destiny results from a combination of a few big choices (of the sort historians tend to write about) but also —and more significantly — by countless small choices made by millions of people over long periods of time.

In the end, the heart of the ethical life lies in the conviction that the world can be transformed by goodness — not everywhere and not for everyone at once — but incrementally, one person at a time.

Voting is one of the chief responsibilities of citizenship. It is the way in which each of us gets a direct say in who will represent us in the various branches of government and be tasked with the responsibility of speaking for us when it comes to crafting legislation, interpreting the laws, enforcing the laws, and carrying out policies.

But an even greater responsibility of citizenship is nurturing the relationships that result in civic virtues, such as wisdom, temperance, courage, stewardship, generosity, hope, fairness, and kindness.

There is a kind of beauty — and justice also — in the thought that the good for all can only come about through the goodness of all.

There are no shortcuts in this great game of life. We each have our part to play, and everyone’s part is important.

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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