Posts Tagged ‘character’

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On Saturday I had the privilege of delivering the keynote speech to the 2015 Honors Day Convocation of undergraduates at the University of Texas. The students inspired me to think deeply about how educated young people can improve our society. Here are some of the words I delivered to the audience of 4,000 undergraduates, families and faculty:

We are a society of great power and wealth, but we cannot continue to go on as we are today. We are destroying too much as we overspend, overmilitarize and overconsume. The last 25 years have witnessed a remarkable burst in the creativity of our technology and our science, but our political and social thought has not kept pace. As human beings we have stagnated, even fallen behind. Just look at how old and out-of-date our ideas and our policies are. Just listen to how formulaic, useless and offensive our public rhetoric has become. Our technical ingenuity is not matched by the necessary humanistic creativity to move our society forward, and improve our lives — all of our lives.

As our most talented young citizens enter diverse professions, you have a collective choice: Will you maximize the value you can provide for yourself and your family, or will you find a way to do well but also do good? Will you define your success by your paycheck or by the larger purpose of your pursuits? These are not either-or propositions — you can live comfortably and help others — but they pose real choices about priorities. How will you turn your talents and opportunities into human value for others?

These are fundamentally questions of character. This is a word we do not talk enough about. In the past it was sometimes a code word to exclude people who did not come from the “correct” backgrounds. That misuse of the word should not lead us to forget its deeper and more inclusive meaning.

Character is the quality of seeing beyond the immediate to a deeper meaning in human interactions. It is a historical sensibility about past inheritances, present possibilities and future responsibilities. A person of character does not live for herself or for the present, but for a broader set of human purposes. A person of character derives wisdom and judgment from extensive reflection on what really matters, and what really endures for humans as a whole.

Citizens of character avoid simple solutions and slogans; they take on the more difficult and uncertain challenges that determine larger outcomes. They lead by example, they acknowledge their failures and they always strive to make themselves and others better. Citizens of character succeed for reasons beyond their brains and brawn. They display three fundamental qualities that draw others to them.

First, citizens of character display decency toward others. They do not make less talented and privileged people feel inadequate or inferior. They do not take all they can when they know others have so much less. Decency requires humility — a recognition of self-imposed limits on greed, even if society does not always enforce those limits. Decency stands for fair play, not profit maximization. In promoting justice rather than victory, acts of decency replace competitions for accumulation with cooperation to share the bounty.

Second, to gain character one must accept sacrifice. Nothing comes for free, and anything worth having requires giving something else up. Citizens of character do not market their talents for money alone — that is too easy. Citizens of character use their talents to achieve higher goals — that is the hard road that produces positive changes. Sacrifice builds character because it makes citizens strive for what they really value, not the goodies offered to them instead.

Third, and perhaps most important, character requires hope. It is too easy to look at our troubled world in a learned way and lament that things “cannot change.” Resigned to the present, one can feel free to profit from the problems of our day, as many of us do. Character comes from the courage to imagine a better world and believe in it. Character expresses itself not with easy promises and sound bites but real thought about how the world could be better and how we can start to get there. Great leaders of character inspire people to pursue big, realistic dreams.

I have hope because I see the decency in our talented students every day. I have hope because I know our students are ready to sacrifice for big dreams, if only we will encourage them to do so. Too many older and tired citizens are telling our students to think small, focus on their families and get rich. There is nothing wrong with being rich, but wealth does not create character or human fulfillment.

American society was built by great men and women of character, and it is time we recognized that we need another generation of character to take over the reins from those who have displayed a striking absence of character in recent years. Societies renew themselves when talent is combined with decency, sacrifice and hope. We are ready for that long overdue renewal. I see it coming the eyes of my students and the fears of their elders. Character beats fear every time.

This column originally appeared in the Daily Texan, 21 April 2015.

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Nelson Mandela’s death is more than just the death of a great man. It is the death of a hero. He lived a life that combined radical ideas about racial equality and social democracy with a willingness to work among others who had different points of view. Mandela suffered for his beliefs, but he did not make others suffer for theirs. He worked courageously to change a society, and much of the world, but he did not use intolerance or self-righteousness as tools for his purposes. For someone who lost so much to the hateful hands of human injustice, he resisted all temptations to revenge and vengeance. He was a leader who used attention to the ugliness of a dismal past to imagine a much brighter future.

 

Mandela’s greatness was not his eloquence, although he could speak and write with great power. He was not a warrior or a genius or a man of drama. He had the most classical of virtues, what the Ancient Greeks called “character:” the ability to set oneself apart from the normal human emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Max Weber would later refer to this rare quality as the “magic” of transcendence that made an individual seem as if he were part of his time, but not imprisoned by it. Mandela was an inspiring moral character because people around the world could identify with his humanity as they also stood in awe of his control and forbearance.

 

He lived his cause. As an activist lawyer, political prisoner, national leader, and global sage he stood for so much more than just himself or South Africans or dark-skinned peoples. Mandela embodied a vision of peaceful inclusion, reconciliation among adversaries, and cooperation for the common good. He defied the categories of East and West, white and black, rich and poor. He never spoke of “us” versus “them,” but of “we” the citizens of the world, in a way that resonated because it reflected who he was. In his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize lecture Mandela defined his universalism, built on the local struggles against Apartheid: “The processes in which South Africa and Southern Africa as a whole are engaged, beckon and urge us all that we take this tide at the flood and make of this region as a living example of what all people of conscience would like the world to be.”

 

Mandela was the moral conscience of the late twentieth century. He was the positive model so many of us clung to when we witnessed the depravity and despair around us. Despite the terrible genocide in Rwanda, Sudan, and the former Yugoslavia, there still was Mandela. Despite the brutal tyranny in North Korea, Myanmar, and Venezuela, there still was Mandela. Despite the deadly violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, as well as Europe and the United States, there still was Mandela. He made a better world seem possible. He reminded us, in Lincoln’s words, of the “better angels of our nature.”

 

We have no other heroes today like Mandela. His death leaves us ever more dominated by the cynicism, selfishness, and partisanship that seem so pervasive in our current world. We cannot go on this way. There are limits to the power of an individual, but Mandela’s life should remind us that acts of character, courage, and conscience move societies.

 

Moral examples can triumph over the guns and wealth of entrenched interests. Heroes move history. Mandela found his hero within during years of captivity. We must all search for a little bit of the same in ourselves if we wish, once again, to be “a living example of what all people of conscience would like the world to be.” To live without heroes, is to live without hope.

 

This blog post originally appeared at http://globalbrief.ca

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.

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