Insights for Flourishing: In Pursuit of Justice and Happiness This 4th of July

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We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – Declaration of Independence, 1776.

Slavery Ended!  When Will Justice Begin?  Black Lives Matter!!!  Language on sign held high by protester, front cover of June 3 – 9, 2020 issue of C-Ville.

This year, in many ways, has evoked memories from my youth.

I recall my days as an exchange student from suburbia—not long after the horrible and tragic assassination of Martin Luther King and its violent aftermath—with exchange students from the inner city. Our Walt Whitman High School Yearbook for the class of 1970 described this cultural awareness program this way:

“For ten days, sixteen white Whitman students and sixteen black students from McKinley High School in Washington, [DC] paired off, to share each other’s daily lives, their friendships, and their understanding. Fears of “the inner city” (which Whitman exchangees found were greatly exaggerated) kept most Whitmanites in their suburbs and 60 would-be participants from McKinley found no partners. Students exchanged experiences and ideas at several discussions. Most McKinley students found Whitman’s people cold and closed.  Many Whitman exchangees admired McKinley’s unity and spirit; some felt it denied individuality. The Whitman-McKinley exchange offered each student a meaningful friendship, and an awareness of a culture not his own.”

I also recall with fondness, Siraj Al Baker, a high school foreign exchange student from Kuwait. In the midst of heightened Middle East tensions and not long after the 1967 war between Arab states and Israel, Siraj lodged with our family for a semester. I was impressed with his gentle demeanor and his many other fine attributes, but what I remember most was that he was an outstanding soccer player. His prowess on the field helped power our team to an 8 and 2 record in 1969, including five shutout victories!

And as Congress drafts new legislation to address continuing injustice in our country, my memory harkens back to the hope and the excitement widely felt when Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  These Acts outlawed discrimination in voter registration requirements, and prohibited racial segregation in schools, the workplace, and in public facilities.

Along with other similar laws and regulations enacted since then, these Acts of Congress affirmed our shared belief in the bedrock principles of human rights and the rule of law. And they will remain just and proper only so long as law enforcement and the courts impartially prosecute, defend, and protect our rights.

As a high school senior 50 years ago, I thought that the passage of these laws and the funding of social programs, coupled with the passage of time, surely would usher in desired change. But as we celebrate the 4th of July in the summer of 2020, the many grievances championed by the Black Lives Matter movement and others starkly illustrate that, despite decades of effort, “We the People” have much more to do if we are “to form a more perfect Union.” And I wonder to myself, in the midst of our tumultuous times, has our overall approach achieved as much as we wished for and thought it would 50 years ago? Clearly not.

If we are to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”—goals enumerated in the Preamble of our Constitution—we need to augment our efforts beyond what the law or social programs can accomplish. Here are two examples illustrative of what I mean.

Learned through searing personal experience, political prisoner, author, and 1970 Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn understood that a society governed by the letter of the law would never rise above moral mediocrity.  In his commencement address to the Harvard class of 1978, Solzhenitsyn communicated this idea to the assembled gathering: 

“I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.”

Nearly two hundred years earlier, James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution of the United States, strove to create a constitutional republic to free us from the injustices experienced under the heavy hand of the British monarchy. No matter how well conceived or administered, he fully recognized the limits of governmental power to secure our safety, liberty, or happiness. On June 20, 1788—at the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 168 delegates gathered in Richmond to ratify or reject the United States Constitution—he warned:

“Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks – no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical [illusory] idea.”

So, what are we to do? Here is one approach I offer based upon decades of personal experience that goes beyond conventional political science.

In 1974, I greatly enhanced my happiness, indeed my life, when I married Carmen Alicia Morales Perez, a beautiful and vivacious Puerto Rican girl I first met in high school. Owing to her being Hispanic, my grandfather refused our invitation to attend our small, outdoor wedding on the pastoral grounds of Evans Farm Inn in Northern Virginia. I felt disappointed and ashamed.

Granddad was right in one respect, however.  He knew that marriage (and human relationships in general) are challenging enough to nurture and sustain without the extra trials brought on by bridging sharp differences and gaping divides in cultural history, language, food, music, politics, and religion, to name just a few. But he was wrong because he underestimated the power of our love and our goodwill toward each other to rise to the occasion, meet head-on our challenges, and surmount them.

And I believe herein lies part of the answer to the BLM protester’s question: “When Will Justice Begin?

I know I may sound trite. I know there is so much more to do regarding a plethora of issues such as housing, education, health, and income. Nevertheless, I do believe that for true justice to begin, our hearts must be full. Full of gratefulness for gifts received each day. Full of hope and full of respect.  Full of joy for the opportunity to serve and to grow. By helping others, by lending an ear to listen with compassion, by offering gracious hospitality to neighbor and stranger alike, not only will their troubles, burdens, and grievances be lightened, but so will ours as well.

And perhaps most important of all, to usher in justice, our hearts must overflow with wonder and awe for the precious gift of life, both yours and mine.

[A]ny man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.  John Donne. 

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