Letter #3: A house divided
December 24, 2020
The darkness outside is pretty thick right now. The rain is coming down in sheets. I just looked out the window and saw poor Joe, the mailman, head down against the pouring rain fighting his way up the street on a late night run to try to make sure that our neighbors get last-minute packages for Christmas. It’s been a hard year for Joe and the other postal carriers, UPS drivers, delivery drivers, and on and on.
It’s such a strange time. I’ve been so sad for you that you’re not going to be able to be with the rest of the family this year for Christmas. Your cousins are feeling it too, as are so many other kids this year. All of us — millions of families around the country — will be cut off and isolated this year…divided from one another by a deadly virus that has already killed over 325,000 of us.
But this virus is not the greatest cause of division for Americans this year.
In times past, crises like COVID-19 have brought Americans together. They have made us stronger. The threat of Nazi Germany united the entire country together to defeat fascism and hatred. The attacks on our homeland on September 11, 2001 brought Americans of all shapes and sizes and ideologies together with one voice.
This time it’s different. This time, we are becoming even more divided during the crisis. But it’s not the virus that is dividing us. The cause of our division is the very pillar of strength that has inspired us and pulled us out of so many crises in the past. This time, the cause of our division is our leaders.
Now, there are some brilliant political scientists out there who say that it’s the divisions in our country that have produced the divisive leaders of our time. I believe that is a cop out. It’s a weak excuse. Leaders must lead. They must be held accountable. They must make hard choices and do what is right — even when it may not be in their best interest personally or in the best interest of their political party. Our leaders in Congress and the White House wield enormous power. They must step into their positions with hands trembling and hearts heavy with the burden of standing for and representing the men and women across this nation who exercised their right to choose them to lead.
Our leaders are failing us. Instead of leading from the front during this time of heartbreaking sorrow, the leaders we elected to represent us in the halls of Congress and in the White House are tearing us apart at the seams. As I write these words on Christmas Eve, three thousand Americans are dying from COVID-19 every single day. Millions are without work. And even now, after months of obstruction, bickering and political maneuvering, our leaders still haven’t been able to pass a bill to provide desperately needed assistance to millions of American families who are beginning to lose hope.
Don’t get me wrong — there are courageous, selfless, values-driven leaders at the helm scattered throughout our government, fighting upstream every day to make the lives of Americans better. But today, these heroes are the exception, and not the rule.
The majority of our political leaders are too busy trying to lock in their position of power for another term. They are too busy making sure that “their side” (be it Republican or Democrat), wins and remains in power at all costs. They are too busy spreading lies and conspiracy theories because these falsehoods benefit them and enable them to remain in power. These leaders are too busy becoming famous to solve problems — grandstanding on the Sunday morning cable news shows as they strive to outdo one another by stoking the fires of fear and hatred of the “other side” so that they can personally benefit from fame and power. They blame everyone around them for their own failures. They tear down anyone who stands in their way on Twitter with childish, personal attacks and baseless accusations. They scrape and claw desperately — spreading worse and worse lies in order to remain in power.
It makes me so sad to watch. This is not leadership. This is cowardice. And Americans deserve better. You deserve better.
Our leaders are supposed to solve problems, not create them. They are supposed to celebrate our differences and unite the country…not convince us that we need to wage war with other Americans just because they look or think differently than we do. They have made us forget who we are, and because of their selfish cowardice, the nation is now at a very dangerous tipping point.
But we have been here before as a nation. And just like before, we can heal the divide if we choose to.
Ok, quick history lesson (I know how much you LOVE history). On June 16th, 1858, as Abraham Lincoln campaigned to become a U.S. Senator for the State of Illinois, he famously quoted a Bible verse during one of the most important speeches of his career.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he declared.
He went on to say that the nation would not be able to endure half slave and half free. Lincoln lost that election, but went on to become President of the United States two years later — leading the nation during one of the most divided times in our history. The words that Lincoln spoke that day in 1858 proved sadly accurate as the country descended into one of the worst chapters of American history — ripping itself apart through a civil war that killed over 600,000 of our own.
Today, America is deeply divided. There are only two other times in our nation’s history when we have seen this level of division and fear. The first period of deep division for America was, of course, the period during which Lincoln gave his powerful “house divided speech” in the 1860s when the horrific injustice of slavery was tearing the nation apart. The second time we saw this level of intense division was a time known as the Gilded Age (roughly 1870 to 1900) — a time of unprecedented economic inequality and deep hatred between America’s two political parties.
The first period of division led to horrific violence and bloodshed. The second to a dramatic turnaround as Americans fought to find their voice and pulled the fate of the nation back from the brink of destruction.
These two periods in our history point to two paths that we can now take as a nation. After the Gilded Age, reformers rallied the nation to dramatically change the political system — giving more representation and power to the people and eroding the power of extremists and wealthy special interests. We can choose that second path again today.
But who will lead us out of this time of scary division and hatred on all sides? There is a new generation of servant leaders rising up to help lead us down that second path. But we cannot wait for them to gain positions of power to get started. The situation is too urgent and the division too great to wait. We must act now and light the spark. We, the American people have to do it this time.
I believe in Americans. I believe in the values and principles and ideas that we all share at our core as American citizens. I believe that everyday American citizens can and must begin to lead us out of this.
And that starts with you and me, Trinity.
The problem may seem too big. Too scary. Too impossible. But there are small steps that you and I can take every day to turn the tide. These steps are how you and I start the change:
Love. Be kind to people. Especially when there’s nothing in it for you. And especially to those who haven’t been that nice to you. Fear causes us to want to talk with, hang out with, have fun with and just be with people who look like us, talk like us and think like us. We must break that fear. Love is powerful. It is far more powerful than fear. We tear down fear through simple acts of love. Start small. Give someone who is obviously having a rough day your smile. Say a kind word to someone. Write a short note to cheer someone up. Buy someone a cup of coffee. It doesn’t take much, but acts of love and kindness can break through the noise and melt through someone’s iciness, mistrust and defensiveness.
Tell the truth. The truth matters. Relentlessly search for the truth. Ask tough questions. Don’t lie to avoid uncomfortable situations. Don’t lie to make you or your tribe look good. Don’t lie because it’s easier. Don’t pass lies on to others just because they reinforce your point of view or make you feel good. Strive to know the truth — even when the truth is painful.
Be humble. Today, we are too busy shouting at each other to even begin to understand one another. We are so sure of what we stand against, but I’m not sure we even remember what we stand for. Humility can break that cycle. Listen more, talk less. Don’t interrupt people. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Say you’re sorry. When you hurt someone, reach out to them, admit your mistake and ask their forgiveness.
Be courageous. Courage doesn’t just mean charging a hill to take a machine gun position on the battlefield. Courage under fire is an example of physical courage. Very few people will ever be tested by an occasion that calls for true physical courage, but almost everyone will be tested by a situation that demands true moral courage. Moral courage is simply doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. It is simple to define, but it is extraordinarily difficult to live out. When times get dark and you are confused, stop what you are doing, look deep inside yourself and do the right thing — you’ll know what that is when the time comes.
Don’t be afraid to lead. I have a lot that I want to share with you when it comes to leadership, but we’ll save that for a future letter. For now, I will just say this — great leaders serve other people, not themselves. This nation needs real leaders to step forward like never before in our history. The best leader doesn’t have to be the loudest, strongest or smartest person in the room. She doesn’t have to be the most famous or the most popular. The very best leader is the one who is willing to put the needs of her people ahead of her own needs. That leader inspires people who follow her to accomplish the impossible. Step forward to serve those around you, and lead. As you do, others will follow you.
The division and fear in our country seems so big right now. But that division can be reversed. We can avoid the path our nation went down once before in the echo of Lincoln’s sobering warning in 1858. We can choose the higher path. We can heal as a people. But it starts with you and me.
In times of uncertainty, love in action defeats fear and paralysis. Use your voice. You are powerful. Act in love. Act in hope. Act with courage. And together we can start a revolution that can heal a nation.