The following is an excerpt from the Election Week chapel talk I gave to Upper School students on Nov. 5.
During election season, I often think about Teddy Roosevelt and the “Man in the Arena” segment of his "Citizenship in a Republic" speech given in 1910 in Paris, France.
“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” he said. “A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life's realities -- all these are marks, not ... of superiority but of weakness.”
Then he delivered an inspirational and impassioned message that drew huge applause:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the Arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
I have written this United States Election Week chapel talk several times over the past few weeks and days because I continue to have new realizations. And honestly, most of them are shaped around my experiences versus your experiences. “I remember when this happened" or "I remember that time when we worried about hanging chads” (and other hotly contested elections, divisiveness in the country, repeated talking points).
BUT then I remember, all that is irrelevant. THIS is all that you've seen.
There were some really positive aspects -- the sitting president of the United States visited Rome, Ga., which is pretty cool regardless of where you lean politically. Additionally, more people voted in this election than typically do, which is great! More younger voters participated, which is also great! But I arrive here today to say simply, there is much work to be done. No matter who wins, we have significant issues in our country and we need to find a way to address them. Trading back and forth doesn’t work -- we have to work together. Think about a football team. If half the line blocks one play and the other half only blocks the next, it doesn’t really work.
Name calling doesn’t work. Not listening doesn’t work. We need to look forward. We need to lead with EMPATHY.
That being said, I want you to think about two things you hear about a lot -- MASKS and SIX FEET.
We wake up in the morning and in addition to our backpacks, sports practice gear, and car keys, we also need to remember a mask. I am not talking about that mask, though. I am talking about a figurative mask. So here is the question:
Are you wearing a mask even when not wearing a mask? Are we vulnerable enough to allow ourselves to truly be known?
Our figurative masks like a literal mask are used to deflect and hide us from our true selves. Take off your mask and be willing to share your story. Can we be vulnerable enough to truly know others? Take off your mask and be willing to hear someone else’s story. The path to loving your neighbor is knowing your neighbor. This is the heart of leading with EMPATHY.
And, here is a second question:
How can you make a difference in the six feet around you?
At the beginning of the year, I asked you to “expand your neighborhood.” To me, your neighborhood is wherever you happen to be in any given moment. Elections do not change that. Making things better is not about people far away from you -- it is about that man on the line next to you, the family that lives next door, the people that work the drive through at Chick-Fil-A, a person that stops to help if you have a flat tire or helps you find a job, someone who gives you advice. That person will not be Donald Trump, nor will it be Joe Biden.
Focus on those who enter your space and choose to be decent, loving, caring, inclusive and compassionate. That is the way. That must be our way!
Listen. Tell your story. Love your neighbor. If we know each other, we can love each other and then we can disagree without being disagreeable, we can accomplish great things without caring who gets credit, and we can understand the pain and hurt as well as the love and joy.
Soon the Arena will be yours! Be the person in the Arena -- not the critic!
And remember, in the wisdom of pre-K student Samuel Evans, "Red and blue make PURPLE!"