Since the birth of the 24-hour news cycle and its cousin, the seemingly infinite blogosphere, leaders have struggled to capture the public’s razor-thin attention. This is one of the reasons extremism has become so disappointingly normal. Those who lead change movements perceive that their messages have to sizzle, pop and maybe even detonate in order to command an audience.
Our political leaders all seem to wish for a Winston Churchill moment, dramatically orating before an enraptured audience, exclaiming that they will fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and streets, and “never surrender.” It’s the kind of stuff that gets one’s adrenaline pumping—wonderful when fighting mass murderers seeking to enslave the known universe.
We often encourage them, feeding the extremists in our quest for drama. After all, when we pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV, we look for something outrageous. Helen Keller captured our existential thirst for excitement when she wrote that “life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
But what if we find ourselves engaged in a life and death struggle with our office mates over the correct marginal tax rate for earners of a certain income? Should “never surrender” be tattooed on our foreheads? Or suppose we find ourselves waging entrenched ideological war over the appropriate age for retirement? Or the standards for public education in high school math? Are these struggles of the “take no prisoners” variety?
Perhaps we should acknowledge that in the real day-to-day work of community leadership—and within that frame I would include political leadership at the state and even national level—we rarely (dare I say never?) combat actual demons. Most of the time we are fighting our friends and neighbors (yawn), with our more or less reasonable ideas, notions that contain measures of both truth and error. We are not likely to find a real Churchill moment. And that’s a good thing. It’s a blessing that we live in times during which no singular terrible threat stands at our borders threatening to destroy civilization as we know it.
These better times require of us a different kind of courage: the boldness to be humble and pragmatic, to see that after we have solved an intricate problem all too imperfectly, probably no one will take notice. Yes, we are mortal, and it is highly unlikely that we will be remembered for any one courageous stand. As an old friend once said, “I used to be in Who’s Who; now I’m in Who’s He!” Milton aptly described the quest for fame as the last infirmity of the noble mind. The courage of humility and pragmatism requires us all to let go of our big egos as we work to achieve small victories from day to day, striving to make progress in a world that rarely agrees about anything, and that readily forgets what it learned minutes ago.
When we listen to the sturm und drang in Washington or in any of our state capitols, we see a disappointing lack of such common-sense courage. Instead of rational dialogue, the rooms are full of people ready to pay the full measure of devotion for causes that are important, yes, but not outside the bounds of compromise. Case in point: the debt ceiling debates that rage as I write this. So many supposedly courageous leaders—too many!
To over dramatize the mundane leaves us empty when something truly matters. Most of the critical issues of our time need to be patiently worked upon and sensibly resolved, not inflamed through life-or-death, all-or-nothing, courageously impassioned speeches or stances. They are not soul-of-a-people, Kumbaya or the national-anthem-singing occasions. It would be more than fine if we just disgruntedly gain some ground. It would be OK to make an OK deal. In the spirit of Mark Twain, the rumors of our apocalypse have been greatly exaggerated.
The greatest problems of the world will yield most readily not to heroic quests, but to quiet and consistent efforts of painstaking pragmatism. And the fact that this is so, well, it is nothing less than one of the true blessings of our shared liberty.
Life sometimes is a daring adventure, even moreso, when it is not.