The New Year is a time to lift our gazes. As Solomon said in Proverbs 16: 1, “The preparations of the heart” becomes the answer of the tongue.
We get into habits today, and one can often be that of finding flaws in others. Too often, unlike the Good Samaritan, we judge from the side of the road. We lecture mentally and even condemn those for whom we care. The preparations of the heart, however, dispose our very thought.
So what lifts the heart, and how can we produce it? Just as a gardener works beneath the hardened soil of winter to find a sea of active spring earthworms opening the garden’s fertile future, we must penetrate the hardness of thought for humanity’s progress to follow.
As we live out 2018, let us take solace first in some significant events which broke through the strife of last year. Houston’s civic kindness makes the character of that city less known for historic flooding than the transcendent nature of its recovery.
And VegasStrong broke the culture and cycle of hate by pouring public gratitude across the airwaves in equal speed and force to the heinous shots of a poisonous tragedy. These situations can only occur by calling forth ordinary virtues in abundant supply.
Both Houston and Las Vegas evoked fabulous heart and self-assurance. A little further away, in distance and time, Haiti – the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished nation – just made an astounding gift. In December, it gave $250,000 to other Caribbean Islands hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria last fall. Haiti’s genuinely sacrificial deed carries as much weight in empathy as gift.
Still farther away, virtues are treated as gifts between people more than wholesale obligations. Michael Ignatieff, a human rights advocate (and critic also) in The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World, shows how stressed societies, anti-Muslim monks in Myanmar for example, run by ordinary virtues. They are transactions of gratitude rather than scoped and imputed rights.
Mercy matters more than moral operating systems. Enduring human qualities like respect, courage, and heart bring strangers into our midst. Everything in Myanmar is local. Negotiations reciprocally between people, one at a time, help societies avoid being seized by leaders. They make it less likely tools of political fear will exploit how populations (or parts of one) elevate or twist in the social order.
Ordinary individual virtues carry more power than a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Public Square wonders if inherently good natural qualities are not again quietly ascending the ladder of the public political marketplace over 20th century coded thinking.
The mantle of inclusion in America is currently somewhat fragile, but our self-correcting culture can change it. False stereotyping just needs to give way to reaching out, to forging a better habit, to taking a fresh tone, to loving our neighbor more. These will enable the New Year to be the “rising tide lifting all boats.” Can that tide, which acts much like a mighty river’s flow of force carving chasms and shaping terrains, translate to the realm of emotional momentum?
Can the tide be a hose of the spirit? As with the source of the river, the seed is in itself – it is not simultaneously good and evil. Categorizations which lift the assertion of group rights to some qualified public label of acceptance may be better brand, but they sadly can create the very divisions they seek to destroy. They, too, like the seed, replicate and multiply.
Our public character must be shaped increasingly by an improved atmospheric and moral terrain. Nothing should interest us more. January, a time of universal outlook and benevolence, is when we are most touched by the corners of our thought to see things anew.
The shift is cumulative. It can reach beyond who we are. As a river imposes its direction with no need to feel we are part of a change or have even much to do with things, so the progress of the heart generates positive effects. It takes hold, exerts momentum, and flows through streams of life we don’t see. Through what the poet Wordsworth calls “all that mighty heart,” we are sure to be lifted.