In his book The Abolition of Man, the great British thinker C.S. Lewis contemplates the demise of universal values and moral leadership. From a young age, children are taught that only objective reality is universal, Lewis writes.
The dismissal of a common standard of morality results in a society led by individuals with “heads no bigger than the ordinary; it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them so… we make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
I can’t help but wonder if Lewis would be ironically satisfied or overwhelmingly heartbroken at how true his words are today.
In the past few weeks, the United States mourned the loss of one of its true heroes, John McCain. Americans from both ends of the political spectrum exalted McCain for his lifelong commitment to public service, his willingness to put country over party, and his unwavering faith in American exceptionalism.
While his death was deeply painful, it was also painfully beautiful. It reminded us that our leaders are first people before they are Republicans or Democrats. It united the country in admiration for a great man who led with values and integrity.
But the passing of Senator McCain leaves a vacancy that looms beyond a desk on the floor of the U.S. Senate. With his passing, America loses a true patriot that embodied the ideals on which the country was built.
Americans desire leaders who have the courage and virtue to place values above partisan pressures. We desire leaders who are willing to put their name on the line for what they believe is right. We desire men—and women–with chests.
Instead, we were soon reminded that we have the opposite.
On September 5th, an anonymous article in the New York Times revealed that there is currently an effort by high-level officials in the Trump administration to thwart the President’s agenda.
In some ways, I think readers felt a knee-jerk reaction of relief. Knowing that there is a counterbalance to Trump’s rash and increasingly dangerous effort to redefine American greatness is comforting on the surface.
But the reality is actually the opposite.
The letter represents the toxic trend of anonymity and unaccountability in our society. The author, even if acting with genuine good intention, exemplified a lack of courage running rampant through our country. What’s needed is the courage to stand up to powerful, partisan politics.
This lack of courage extends far beyond our political leaders. Heated Facebook debates, Twitter wars, and anonymous blogs provide a veil that allow people to hold extreme beliefs without ever having to explain themselves in person.
Or, as C.S. Lewis puts it, “we make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
So how do we fix it?
This is where I think C.S. Lewis provides the only answer: we must educate ourselves and the next generations to contemplate, define, and prescribe to a set of universal values and virtues.
From a young age, we are told to not discuss politics and religion. These issues are categorized as potentially contentious and sensitive. Then, we are surprised that our elected officials find it impossible to engage in civil discourse. We act mortified at the friction between different religious groups.
It’s time to switch the script. Children should be taught the importance of engaging in conversations that incorporate both intellectual discovery and human emotion. We must lead by example and stop hiding behind anonymity. We must define what we believe, state what we believe, and own up to what we believe.
In the documentary “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the senator reflected on his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He teared up, paused, and softly said “It wasn’t until I was deprived of her company that I fell in love with America.”
It was this genuine love for our country that resulted in our country loving McCain in return. It wasn’t the “objective reality” that he was good at his job. It was the evident feeling of honor he found in fighting for American values.
Our generation of young people must embrace this mindset. We must abandon extreme ideological stances, the lure of anonymity, and petty social media fights to chart a new direction for our country. We must not wait until we are deprived of American values to decide they are worth preserving.
Our country’s future depends on those with brilliant minds full of great ideas. But it also depends on those with hearts on fire for the values this nation represents; values like freedom of thought, belief, and speech, respect for every individual, compassion for the poor, and the opportunity to dream and achieve that dream. The mind minus the heart is an incomplete equation. We shouldn’t focus solely on the minds of our next generation; we must focus on strengthening the atrophy of the chests below them.