The linguists among you will note that the last word in the title should be "grace". Gracious is an adjective meaning "characterized by grace"; adding "-ness" just makes the adjective back into a noun meaning "grace". I note this not to be a word nerd, but to make a point: we are so disconnected from grace as quiet, confident, honorable strength and dignity grounded in basic human decency and, in my view, our very nature as angels in bodies, that we don’t even use the word anymore to describe gracious behavior. We subtly remove ourselves from grace by making it into a tenuous adjective nominalization (how’s that for one?). Grace is something ballerinas have, we think, and they aren’t very strong. When, in reality, the foundation of a ballerina’s amazing physical art is nearly unfathomable strength.
We have grown so accustomed to equating, or having equated for us, gratuitous displays of strength as actual strength that we have not only lost the ability to differentiate between the two, but have inverted them. Bluster, name-calling, school-yard taunts ("bring-em on"), in-your-face celebrations of victory and conquest have become strength in our minds. Quiet, assured, modest accomplishment, determination, perseverance or actual firmness under pressure– i.e, grace – are viewed as weakness, not because they are weak, but because they have not been trumpeted, and, therefore cannot be strong.
From the wild: a wild turkey is strong – as hell –; a peacock struts, puffs up and intimidates, but is really just nasty and surprisingly fragile. From literature and cinema, think about Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Played with astounding grace by Gregory Peck in the rare movie role that does justice to the written character, Finch is quiet, bookish, calm, gracious, but he is the only one in town with the strength to stand up to the local bigots and defend a black man falsely accused of beating and raping a white woman.
Don’t think that is strong? Well the novel shows us a more colloquially accessible example of strength. When a rabid dog threatens the children, to whom does the local police officer pass the rifle to get the one shot they probably have at this threat? The loud-mouthed white supremacists trying to railroad a black man for a cowardly white man’s crime? No, he hands the rifle to Atticus Finch, who to the astonishment of the children is the best shot in the county. Strong, accomplished, able to really stand up to a threat, but quiet about it. Finch hits his target and then dances around, thrusts out his chest and high fives everyone. No. Finch quietly, sadly, hands the gun to the officer and walks calmly back inside. Taking a life, even of a rabid dog, is no occasion for celebration. It had to be done, he was the best person for the job, he did it well and then went about his day.
That is grace. And we no longer recognize it, trust it or much like it. Our public officials, for the most part, are severely lacking in it. Grace was once an admirable, desired trait. It is now largely lost.
Our public discourse portrays the inversion of gracious strength and empty, dishonorable bluster. Think about what happened after the House voted down the Wall Street bailout. Both Republicans and Democrats walked out and commenced a series of snide, mocking, disdainful attacks on the "other" side. It disgusted me and lowered my view even of Representatives I like, such as Barney Frank.
To be frank and pardon the obscenities, our politicians and our TV and radio media pundits generally go around acting like a**holes. Really, can you imagine standing up and shouting some of the things politicians and pundits say your neighbor, your co-workers, your family (OK, maybe we do sometimes say it to our family, but damn it, that’s family and its private and its different and every body hugs and sits down to break bread after its all worked out)?
The scary thing has been, and this election bears the risk of taking it to an even scarier level, that the American people seem to prefer a**holes. We think they have to be a jerk to be strong; they have to be mocking to effectively criticize or oppose; they must show contempt for every single thing the other side stands for to disagree; they have to hog as much credit as possible to have achieved anything. They think one has to call the opponent an evil Muslim mastermind of the imminent terrorist takeover and a godless commie, or a war-mongering, heartless, robber baron, Armageddon-seeking fascist to be seen as tough and serious, when both are just cartoonish and unhelpful.
The best example of our inversion, and our great hope in beginning to relearn the true nature of strength and character, is the difference in both words and demeanor of Barack Obama and John McCain in the debates and their roles in crafting solutions to the financial crisis. Now, Obama is plenty guilty in my mind of ungracious behavior, but for contemporary American politics, he is downright genteel. McCain on the other hand, well, he’s a different and sad story.
In the first debate, suffice it to say John McCain acted entirely without grace. He showed no respect and in fact angrily and condescendingly mocked his Senate colleague, Democratic party nominee, and most importantly, fellow American and human being. He even displayed the ultimate sign of disrespect in refusing to look at Obama. We teach our children better than that; do we not expect a presidential candidate to behave as well as a child? Respect, especially in the face of anger and resentment, takes grace and strength. Anyone can act like a jerk. Anyone.
In the public talk about the financial crisis, McCain tried to take as much credit as he possibly could for getting a bill passed, casting himself as THE central character in the entire drama. Then when it failed, he avoided responsibility despite claiming to be central, and went on to mock and blame Barack Obama for being partisan and "phoning it in". Obama was in fact on the phone to help get things done, without throwing himself and the monkey wrench of the campaign into the works to screw things up, which is what McCain did. McCain was in reality working on the phone as well, thus phoning it in just like Obama. The danger here is that McCain’s glory-hogging and nasty insults might actually convince people that he was working while Obama sat it out.
Barack Obama is actually concerned about achieving something, even if it means the better course is for him to stay in the background and not get credit. He is willing to acknowledge areas of agreement because that is the best way to reach an actual agreement on policies and actions, even if it makes him appear soft in a battle-obsessed culture. He disagrees and points out his opponents misdeeds firmly, but for the most part respectfully, and usually does not overreach or mock in that nasty, caustic tone so many politicians use.
McCain cares only that he gets noticed and is apparently willing to sacrifice the well-being of the people to make that happen. He is a man once steeped in honor – yes, I still believe our military does that. But he is a man acting without honor, letting his anger control him, strutting around without cause and shamelessly and often falsely trying to take down, to personally destroy, another honorable American. He is wholly ungracious.
Obama is gracious. That is what makes him attractive to many and what threatens and unnerves his opponents, and what the American people might mistake for weakness in the era of peacocks posing as protectors.
Here’s to working hard to make sure we don’t need another four years without grace to remember why it is so important.