The Post – Thomas Paine and the inner rallying call

I posted Thomas Paine’s quote from Common Sense, yesterday – “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”

Being a history lover, particularly of the American Revolution, I always love to see what kinds of thoughts and words propelled so many people to throw away every last bit of “status quo,” and “security” to wage war against the 18th century superpower so as to right injustice.

I used to go to the racetrack in Saratoga, New York, every summer with my family. We’d have our $10 or $12 to spend on bets and knew that once that was gone, that was it. So we chose wisely. Even as kids, we knew that yeah, you could walk away with many months of allowance money if you won on the 100:1 shot. We also knew we’d actually go home broke from the racetrack that day because the 100:1 shot never came in. So we passed on it. Given the power of the British in the 1700s, colonial America would have been doing great to even be considered a 100:1 shot. So for that many people to still roll the dice on themselves and go for a dream, you just know there had to be powerful motivators. I look at Thomas Paine’s words and rank his as one of those motivating forces to fight injustice.

I also realize they have a timeless quality. Yes, they applied to the circumstances that let to the Revolution. They also could be a rallying flag for battles against other injustices such as those against race, religion, sexual orientation. Many thought slavery was right. For centuries many just accepted that a long-standing institution was not wrong. These days people make derogatory jokes, or poke fun at certain religious or ethnic or sexual groups, and because “it’s always been that way” it’s assumed it’s okay. I realize Paine’s words do have a rallying quality to fight those battles, no matter the century.

It occurred to me, though, when I posted them, that most people read those words and perceive that the battle, the threat, the enemy is “out there.” The British, or the Jews, or the gays, or the Irish or the Muslims or whatever group is currently the problem. I wondered though if even Thomas Paine knew that his words were really a call to a larger battle.

I stood in front of the mirror and for a split second, caught a glimpse of the real enemy. The true battle, underlying all others, is within. Our beliefs. Biases. Our view that “I’m fine but it’s them” – “those people” – “they’re the problem.” Even the most open-minded liberal who supposedly loves everyone might be surprised to look in their hearts and see the real answers to questions like: Who did I judge today? Who did I decide I was better than? Who did I proclaim a failure because they did something I didn’t agree with so they must be worth less than me?

The reality is we all do it and we do it so often we don’t even notice it. We do it because we always have, and because “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” But every once in a while, in the small second between thoughts of, “Well of course I’m better because I do this, and of course, they’re worse because they didn’t,” there’s that fleeting glimpse of the enemy. I see the enemy staring back at me in the mirror – the person whose heart is so sure it’s right, it’s hardened against anything else. The mind that is like a full glass of water – no room to add any more – so that no room exists to ask questions like, Am I really that good? Are “they” really that wrong? Or the most important question of all – “What if we’re all really the same, no better or worse than the other?”

No answers this morning. Just questions. When Voltaire said “Judge a man by his questions not by his answers,” maybe he was simply pointing out the importance of asking the questions. Questions can bring you to the mirror. The answers are perhaps less important. In fact, maybe the answers are the same for all of us. In the end, we all struggle with the same things because we’re all human. So it’s the questions, the stopping to ask, that matters. Deep down, we probably already know the answers, no matter who we are.

And by the way, don’t assume because I asked these questions, I won’t see that enemy staring back at me in the mirror tomorrow morning. I don’t think it ever leaves. I think it’s somebody that maybe just softens over time, and eventually might stare back at us and say “Yeah, I have been kind of a jerk, haven’t I?”

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