Upon contemplating how to teach my soon- to- be- born son how to be a good man, I have been considering what makes a man.
OK- we all know the obvious anatomy. But what about the less tangible traits? The honor, the courage, the strength of character? How do we teach these abstruse attributes?
I thought back over history. In this country we have the Founding Fathers. Who can say anything bad about them? These men risked certain death to fight an unfair system, not for themselves as much as for future generations.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, and created the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, but then there were the sexual harassment accusations early in his career, not to mention his outspokenness against women’s suffrage and women in politics. When under attack, he deserted Virginia instead of protecting it as its governor. He was one of the originators of political mudslinging in the campaign of 1800. He stood on a platform of small government run according to a strict interpretation of the Constitution, yet he passed special legislation to allow him to implement the Louisiana Purchase, which lacked constitutional precedent and doubled the nation's size. He owned and sold hundreds of slaves throughout his life. He began a sexual relationship with his 14-year old half sister-in-law slave, and when she tried to make a break for freedom in France, he kept her by promising freedom to their children. They were to be the only slaves he freed (although even some of them not until after his death). He never freed their mother.
John Adams was a man of his word. He was the only one willing to give the British soldiers who fired into the streets of Boston a fair trial after the greatly exaggerated “Boston Massacre.” He was possibly the only founding father to marry for love not money, not to mention one of the few to seek out and respect his wife’s thoughts and opinions at a time when women had very few rights. He stressed civic virtue, and was one of the only presidents to never be involved in any scandal, but how do you overlook the Alien and Sedition Acts?
We’re taught at an early age that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but the teachers seem to skip over the parts where he suspend the writ of habeas corpus, arresting and imprisoning thousands of suspected Confederate sympathizers without warrant; disbursed funds before appropriation by Congress; implemented a Union blockade; and all but abolished freedom of the press, excluding newspapers from the public mail, confiscating newspapers, having publishers and editors arrested, and censoring telegraphic messages. And let’s not forget his less than admirable rise to the presidency, although climbing out a window to prevent a quorum and passage of a bill to which one is opposed does require a certain nibble flexibility…
How can I teach my son to advocate this hypocrisy?
Do as they said, not as they did?
If the end result is favorable, who cares what virtues you had to abandon or destroy to accomplish it?
Sure, there are fictitious characters: Atticus Finch is an ideal; even good ole’ George Bailey who saved an entire town from ruin without even knowing it.
But I don’t want him to believe that being good is fiction.
I’ve decided to write him a collection of short stories consisting of events where average men and women showed true bravery, character, and humanity. The people and situations I have chosen exemplify Harper Lee’s description of courage in To Kill a Mockingbird being “when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway, and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
Are these people flawless? Most assuredly not. However, they managed to only exist in the public eye for a brief moment in time when only their heroism was glimpsed.
People are human, sometimes they are extraordinary, and occasionally, they slip into a position of an idyllic archetype. And for these brief, shining moments, they become something to which we all should aspire.