On this day in 1858, Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas met before more than 10,000 people in Ottawa, Illinois. It was the first of seven such meetings in what would become known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. As we near the conclusion of the 2022 primaries to select candidates for the fall midterm elections, I want to honor that event by revisiting an issue — the search for wise leaders — that I first considered in August of 2019.
How do we know that someone is wise?
I began thinking anew about wisdom in 2019 after hearing The Rev. Emily Griffin speak on how those who are wise stay afloat in a figurative sea of rising waters, which is a pretty fair description of our life today. Emily, along with other writers, suggests that wisdom includes meaningful self-knowledge as well as an important outward-facing impact.
Defining wisdom as “knowledge translated into action,” rang true in my mind. We all know people who are full of information and who have an answer for everything. But are these people wise? Emily’s thoughts about the fruit of wisdom being in the “works of our hands” suggest perhaps not:
. . . wisdom is less about mastering floods of information; it’s more about riding the waves so they don’t drown or paralyze us. . . . Wisdom is what helps us to set direction and move together to get there.
But it’s not all about knowing the terrain in advance. Wisdom also helps us to handle new situations that we’ve neither predicted nor prepared for. . . . Wisdom isn’t about intellectual feats of strength; it has to do with what we learn from our elders and from our own experience — and how that comes out in the works of our hands, in the ways we treat each other, in our capacity to respond with calm and grace when anger and judgment are so much easier.
In her 2016 book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett also speaks to the idea of translating knowledge into action. She notes that one of the qualities of wisdom “is about joining inner life with our outer presence in the world. The litmus test of wisdom is the imprint it makes on the world around it.”
We have all known individuals who take the wisdom of their inner life and use it to shape a better world. Unfortunately, we have also seen far too many individuals run and win their primary battles in 2022 without ever mentioning the public good or their part in shaping a better world. Without, frankly, showing many signs of wisdom.
Instead, we have a political party basing its campaigns on the Big Lie that former president Trump won the 2020 election. Its adherents are currently engaged in the attempt to make sure that they can rig elections going forward, establishing a one-party state.
Wisdom is not built upon a lie.
Historian Heather Cox Richardson, wrote just last week of the observation of Edward Luce of the Financial Times. “I’ve covered extremism and violent ideologies around the world over my career,” Luce noted. “Have never come across a political force more nihilistic, dangerous & contemptible than today’s Republicans. Nothing close.”’
Shocking though that observation was, it was nothing compared to what came next. General Michael Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, retweeted Luce and commented: “I agree. And I was the CIA Director[.]”
Nihilism, the rejection of moral principles in a belief that life is meaningless, is the opposite of a wisdom that translates into action for the public good. Far too many of us head into the critical fall elections without taking into account the wisdom — of lack thereof — of those who are asking to lead our government. Far too many are certainly not facing the consequences of nihilistic behavior to our country. As we consider critical decisions about what type of country we expect to be, our political and media culture seem hard-pressed to develop and sustain a process to help us sort through the noise to choose a wise leader.
When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas debated in 1858, largely on the question of expansion of slavery into the territories, one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute rejoinder. The candidates alternated speaking first. Although Lincoln lost that race in the legislature (after winning a plurality of the votes), his fame rose because of the wisdom that came through the coverage of the original debates and a publication of the texts from those events. In the 1860 presidential election that mattered, the people clearly had some sense of the wisdom that could lead the country through its most existential crisis to date.
In 2020, facing another crisis of our democracy, we had four “debates” in the Democratic primary that asked for 60-, 30-, and 15-second responses to complicated questions that will not be decided in less than two minutes. Critical issues were left uncovered. Instead, what we saw in 2020 — and what we continue to see in much of the mainstream media — is politics as reality TV. As veteran journalist James Fallows recently pointed out in response to a New York Times story that Trump still overshadows everything else, stories are “framed” by reporters and editors in a way that diminishes President Biden’s accomplishments and do not offer knowledge — much less wisdom — about issues that most Americans care about.
I know that there are candidates for Congress (and many other offices across the country) who have the ability to be wise leaders, to help us “handle new situations that we’ve neither predicted nor prepared for.” But will we demand that our political parties and the media give us the opportunity to find them? We already know the response of the Republican party to that question. The party and its candidates are moving to do away with debates and cut off access to any members of the media that do not toe the party line.
As we argue for a new type of political coverage, I believe we have to support those conversations and forums that give us the chance to weigh, over time, the wisdom of the candidates. Conversely, we have to take our eyes and ears away from those platforms that simply want to turn our politics into another version of The Bachelorette. We have lots of information but precious little knowledge or wisdom.
One final, and perhaps hopeful note: the text Emily used from the Book of Proverbs, found in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament, defines Wisdom as a “she” who exists at the dawn of creation. She has been here, and remains here, to guide us. It helps us, as Emily notes, to “sense the fullness of what it means to be created in the image of God.”
Something to think about in interesting times.
More to come…
Image: Lincoln Douglas Debates commemorative stamp from 1958 (Credit: U.S. Government, Post Office Department – U.S. Post Office Hi-res scan of postage stamp by Gwillhickers., Public Domain)