Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Learning from John Adams

I've always enjoyed history. Even back in my teenage years, when I was the most lax student imaginable, I was fascinated by the stories, and I understood how important the context of past is to present. There's world history, there's national history, and then there's family history. Sometimes they all merge at critical junctures - and that's one reason the portion of my parents' life story that includes London during WW2 is such a fascinating chapter.

At the moment, Rebekah and I are enjoying the HBO movie series, "John Adams". It's a compelling accounting of one man's struggle to reconcile so many conflicting emotions and commitments, and about the power of one person's story to actually shape the course of history.

I'm captured by the profound effect of personal decisions and self-sacrificial commitments that tipped the balance in monumental events such as:
  • The pivotal advance and retreat along the "Freedom Trail"...
  • The difficult decision to take the step of declaring independence, in writing...
  • The not-so-easy-to-make-happen cooperation between the thirteen colonies...
  • Subjects disobeying direct commands from their own king...
  • Securing support from France (France was teetering on the brink of its own revolution)...
  • The selection of a particular set of ideas over other good ideas when it came time to pen a constitution for the fledgling nation....
I have never before considered the full impact of the significance of individual personalities on the course of human history.
  • What if John Adams had not persuaded New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and South Carolina to support the huge step taken on July 4, 1776?
  • What if Knox had left the guns at Ticonderoga because they were just too much trouble to drag over to Boston?
  • What if Ben Franklin had failed in Paris?
  • What if Abigail Adams had been unwilling to provide counsel to John?
  • What if John Adams had not respected his wife, or had their marriage failed due to the tremendous stresses of 1774-1783?
  • What if George Washington had not believed to the very core of his being that his actions were right and worth the tremendous sacrifice he required both of himself and those around him?
These were all, essentially, quite ordinary people. But they rose to the extraordinary in response to the times. My conclusion is that all individuals, and that means me and you both, hold the power to not only direct the course of their own lives but to steer the direction of human history. What we do - or fail to do - is not only consequential, it is historical.

It is therefore incumbent on us to navigate our lives according to principles that echo the gravity of the responsibility. There is no opting out.

If John Adams had not been so thoroughly rooted in values such as integrity, freedom, responsibility, liberty, conscience, respect for his fellow women and men, justice for everyone (including the British soldiers he defended in court) ... etc. etc., then he would have been unable to even begin to have a positive impact on history.

The series has caused me to look carefully at my own motivations.
  • Do I vote based on my desire for material wealth... or do I go to the polls looking for someone who represents the kind of values John Adams espoused?
  • Do I write simply for money, or do is it important to me to help people think more clearly and live their faith with more authenticity?
  • Do I get up in the morning with my own needs foremost on my mind, or do I approach the beginnings of each new day with the idea of service front and center...?
Looking at history is encouraging me to think more about my own story. My own story may well steer the course of history. The real question is, will it be in the right direction?

Love and blessings - DEREK

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