Not too long ago, I engaged my eccentric, yet highly intelligent uncle in a rather lengthy conversation about ethics.  I have, on occasion, taught this subject matter at the college level, and my uncle was curious to discover the substance of my curriculum.  We began our exchange with a brief consideration of the difference between ethics and religion, and then we established our definitions of the word agnostic. We both quickly determined that religious affiliation was not essential for development of moral systems. For the most part, the dialogue remained positive, with both of us agreeing on basic principles of truth and goodness, and defining organized religion as mostly fear-based, controlling, hypocritical, and misleading people from truth and goodness.  We talked about how the moral backbone of America has shifted and laws have shifted to reflect this change.  In his view, the moral structure of this country has been compromised by a movement toward political correctness, and frankly he “liked the way things were.”  When I suggested that the ways things were did not necessarily promote fairness and equality, he retorted “life isn’t supposed to be fair.”  We then spent some time reflecting upon the destructive forces of hate and fear, and how they have been common threads in the evolution of our nation.  Knowing my aspiration for a career in government, he called my attention to the collection of bumper stickers that adorn my vehicle.  Like many of my family members, he questioned whether it was in my best interest to advertise my beliefs so conspicuously.  In my defense, I stated that truth should be conspicous if our intention is to live consciously.  He noted that sometimes even truth can be misleading if it promotes fear or hatred, and he mentioned my bumper sticker displaying the message “If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention.”  After some contemplation, I agreed that, although I desire to expose others to truth to inspire consciousness and empowerment, outrage is not part of my intended result.             

 Later that afternoon,  I admitted to my uncle that I planned to remove that bumper sticker because it no longer reflects Who I Am.  Somehow this morphed into a conversation about great prophets/leaders and how their message is usually thwarted by assassination (i.e. Gandhi, Jesus, MLK, Lincoln, JFK, etc.).  My uncle commented that, much like these great leaders, America serves a similar role on the planet and he is frustrated by protesters and critics who insist on focusing on our imperfections.  I tried to explain how honoring past suffering, learning from our mistakes and acknowledging room for growth was as important as taking pride in our country, especially when many of the cycles of oppression and manipulation keep repeating themselves.  I expressed that the role of any great leader should include a responsibility for self-evalution, visibility and humility.  Eventually our discussion arrived at the mistreatment of Native Americans and blacks throughout our national heritage. My uncle argued that these acts of slavery, genocide and discrmination were acceptable because the result is a stronger America, the great leader of the free world.  Essentially, the end justified the means.  I asked him if it would be acceptable for someone to rape his daughter if it ultimately led to the passing of a law that saved thousands of lives.  He avoided the question and said our European colonial ancestors HAD to kill the Native Americans because if we didn’t do it, France or some other country would have done it and they would not have made this country the great country that it is.  I asked him if it would be ok for someone to steal his car if they could prove that they were preventing someone else from stealing it and that they would take better care of the car than the would-be thief or the rightful owner.  He didn’t answer that one either, because apparently my uncle does not incorporate logic into his reasoning. 

I then asked if he thought it was important to teach everyone about the Holocaust and honor the suffering of victims and compensate the survivors.  He agreed.  I asked if he thought teaching about the Holocaust and honoring the suffering was unfair to the people of Germany who had nothing to do with the Holocaust.  He said “no, but we should remain wary of Germany because they’ve proven to be dangerous.”  I asked, “because of the Holocaust?”  He said “yes, but they’ve also invaded many countries.”  I said, “based on that logic, shouldn’t the entire world fear America?”  When he asserted that America has not invaded any countries, I started listing countries faster than he could follow.  He interrupted the exhaustive list and said it was irrelevant, because when America attacks other countries we are helping them, defending ourselves, or removing a threat. 

To this day, I am still not certain whether my uncle actually believes these ideas or whether he was just playing devil’s advocate to stir my emotion.  Regardless, his fallacious assumptions were sufficient to wake my sleeping dragon and I told him the conversation was over and started to leave the room.  He laughed and scoffed, “there, I got you.  I made you mad.”  Shamefully, I resorted to personal insult with an emphasis on attacking his lack of formal education.  He paused, and responded in the same controlled, emotionless voice, “You’ll need to get better control if you’re going to take on the world.”

Whether he intended it or not, my uncle was teaching me an invaluable lesson.  Right or wrong, good or bad, it’s all irrelevant if we cannot learn to treat each other with respect and approach the diversity of our humanity with the love of our divine nature.  Everyone is living their lives the way they know how.   Even those who manifest horrible suffering or prey on others are merely operating within a framework that makes the most sense based on their experiences.  We should not ignore antisocial behavior or untruths, but if we orient ourselves from a perspective of tolerance and forgiveness we are in a position to produce the most change.  Carl Jung said, “What you resist, persists.”  When hate begets hate, the result is hate multiplied.  But when hate walks into the arms of love, it is revealed as a powerless illusion.

Great leaders understand the way the universe works and inspire and empower others through their example to create positive change.  Many great leaders are murdered because they are a threat to the powerful institutions that rely on fear and hate to control.  There are powerful people who need a system of fear and hate in order to maintain their power.  Great leaders liberate people from the chains of unconsciousness, then direct their focus to the joy of conscious living rather than the retribution of their captors.  

Great leaders ARE great leaders because when all the world is crumbling around them they stay centered in peace and non-judgment and spread messages of unity, tolerance, and love.  If I want to become a great leader, if I truly want to change the world, I must resist the distractions of fear and hate.  Yes, injustices and absurity abound.  Yes, violence and suffering are tragically pervasive.  But if I allow myself to shift focus to resistance of these things, I am only contributing my energy to that which I do not want.  I must learn to find a balance between blissfully ignorant and bitterly aware.   

Later that afternoon, I apologized to my uncle for my angry outburst.  I admitted he was right about hate and fear distracting us from what really matters, and I confessed that I don’t want to be angry or fearful, especially in my dealings with the people I love. He laughed and said’ “I knew I was right.”  I thanked him for teaching me to be a better person, a better teacher, and a better leader, even if I thought his arguments were illogical.  He said I was forgiven and that if he hurt me, it had not been his intention. Then I hugged him…and in his awkward, rigid, emotionally-challenged way, I know he wanted to hug me back.