Have you ever had someone tell you how easy your job was? Didn’t you just feel so weary after that?
Is seems common to think that something we’ve never done, something we’ve only seen from the outside, is much easier than it looks.
Those who look at the shortcomings of our American system and want to tear it down, perhaps believing that they can build something better from scratch. What if they are underestimating how hard it is to build things? What if they were geniuses who built something truly amazing? What if people tear down the system, but what they put in place is a thousand times worse because they didn’t realize how hard it to accomplish what they hoped? I will agree when this country was founded, there were shortcomings of how the ideals were put into practice, but the ideals themselves were a continual tug to grow to live up to them better. That was part of the genius.
Some people say that you are a hypocrite if you espouse ideals and don’t live up to them. I say that if we can regularly live up to our ideals, our ideals are not high enough, and we are holding ourselves back. If we are to become what we were meant to be, we need a constant tug from our ideals to pull us forward. I would think a better understanding of hypocrisy is holding ourselves to a lower standard than we hold others, being more attentive to others’ shortcomings than our own, and pretending to be better than we are. That prevents us from improving as we could.
Some things are easy, and one of them is to say we would have done better in their place, when we are not in danger of being in their place. It is easy to say that if we had been in the founding fathers’ positions, we could have done a better job. But if we had had the same experiences, the same education, lived under the same circumstances, might we see things differently? A lot of ideas that we think are obvious and common sense took many centuries to develop.
I had a philosophy teacher who said, “There are many people walking around today feeling so superior to Ptolemy because they know that the earth revolves around the sun and he didn’t, but if you sat them down with a pencil and paper to write out sufficient grounds based on observation why to believe the earth revolves around the sun, they would be lost.” As Isaac Newton famous observed, he saw so far because he stood “on the shoulders of giants.” We have received so much. We may be frustrated by the shortcomings of people in the past, we might remember that some of them moved society forward so that more steps could be taken, and we can see from our current perspective.
I suggest that we are always being called to grow and become better. Feeling morally superior is easy; becoming better is hard. It is my observation that if you really want to do good, you will find that you have to work harder than you thought for longer than you expected to accomplish less than you hoped. The prize belongs to those who do not then give up.
There’s something Teddy Roosevelt said that keeps coming to my mind:
“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 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 and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for 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 he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910