Learning from the Past
For two or three years now I have been undertaking what I call my "Presidential Project." In essence, I am reading a biography of each of our Presidents in chronological order. With my other reading (I always have a novel going, a professionally related work of non-fiction and something for my soul--not to mention the occasional book I am reading in order to review it for Speakeasy) I have been averaging a presidential biography every other month or so. Sometimes I get bogged down, if the subject or the author's treatment is a drag (Thomas Reeves' Chester A. Arthur comes to mind!) and it takes much longer. And occasionally a shorter one is a breeze. Currently I am reading A. Scott Berg's brilliant Wilson. It is a beautifully written volume, full of wonderful details about our 28th President, Thomas Woodrow Wilson. Berg has a good grasp on the historical context, and provides many salient details which help to explain Wilson's very complex personality. He even shares how and why he was known as Woodrow instead of Thomas (you'll have to read the book for yourself to find out the details). Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian preacher, was a very moral man. His decisions were often rooted in his deeply held Christian beliefs. He was a regular churchgoer and read the Bible most every day. As I have been reading about his life and work, however, I have been rather troubled that this man, who I really admire in so many ways, was also, for all intents and purposes, a segregationist. Having grown up in the South in the period of time following the Civil War, he seems to have soaked up the surrounding cultural norm that surrounded him in his early days. Now, I am not here to judge Wilson. I think his many, many of his positions and actions were quite laudable. Would that modern politicians be as thoughtful as he was! But his story raises the question, how do we deal with such glaring flaws in the lives of those people of the past we have come to admire? Do you write them off as unacceptable people? Do we discount everything else they did because of such inconsistency? Or do we honestly acknowledge the flaws, while still celebrating the good things they did, the positive contributions they made? Clearly, I think the latter approach is more useful. And frankly, more humane. After all, isn't that the way we want others to treat us? As a human being, I have some real shortcomings. But I pray people don't simply see me for may failings! I hope they are willing to see me as a man struggling to live a life of faith and integrity. Not as a hypocrite. I imagine you wish for the same for yourself. History always has much to teach us. About our world, about ourselves. Might we be willing to learn!