“Our average fellow-citizen is a sane and healthy man, who believes in decency and has a wholesome mind. He therefore feels an equal scorn alike for the man of wealth guilty of the mean and base spirit of arrogance toward those who are less well off, and for the man of small means who in his turn either feels or seeks to excite in others the feeling of mean and base envy for those who are better off. The two feelings, envy and arrogance, are but opposite sides of the same shield, but different developments of the same spirit.”
Was Roosevelt correct? Was he correct for his day and his time? Is this possibly an statement that is still valid today? Let’s start with his thesis statement, “Our average fellow-citizen is a sane and healthy man (substitute person here), who believes in decency and has a wholesome mind.” Quite frankly, this is my predominant experience of the people I know and encounter on a daily basis. In the company culture in which I work this is called assuming positive intent. I believe that most people want to do the right thing for others as well as for themselves. I certainly want to do the right thing, that which will create positive contribution for those around me. Are there times when my actions suggest otherwise? Absolutely, right smack dab in the middle of my positive intent is my own self-centeredness and my own limited view of all that is going on around me.
A number of years ago Barbara and I took a parenting course. One of the principles we picked up through that course was to evaluate our childrens’ behavior based on what they were characterized by. In other words, as we responded to their bad behavior we asked ourselves, “Is this normal consistent behavior on their part or does this seem to be more of an exception?” If the answer was they weren’t characterized by that kind of behavior then to discipline them as though it were patterned behavior would inevitably miss the mark and be unfair to them. So when you evaluate my behavior, or that of anyone else it would be wise to apply the same test. Is this person characterized by that behavior or is this an anomaly. Let’s start digging for the deeper reasons behind the behaviors we encounter in people.
“Okay, Bill,” you ask, “so what? Why are you writing about this?” I have expressed before how disturbed I am by the rancor and vitriol going on in the public conversation here in the United States of America. Maybe it is going on all over the world but it seems particularly pronounced in my home country these days. Roosevelt begins by saying, “Our average fellow-citizen…”. I think most of the public screaming matches we see on our news stations and hear on the airwaves are from people making a living by exploiting the fringes beyond our average fellow-citizen.
I hear strong opinions from those around me, but not closed minds that refuse to listen to anything I have to say because their minds are already made up. I see people making huge contributions to those around them. Some of them are “poor” and some are “rich” but I see them working side by side to try and make this world a better place in which to live. I see people wrestling with their latent racism and prejudices trying to overcome them and accept all people at face value. I see people fighting to get past the labels and into genuine encounters of discovery and understanding. Is it flawed? Sure. Do we have a lot of progress still to make? You bet. But in my experience my average fellow-citizen is generally assuming positive intent and reaching toward genuine fellowship with those around them.
Let’s start celebrating those conversations and start rejecting the vitriol and the attempt of those who sell us the news to convince us that we are irreparably separated.