Andrew Fiala

Worried about America’s future? Take solace knowing our country has deep roots

Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Melania Trump looks on during the 58th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.
Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Melania Trump looks on during the 58th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. Associated Press

An ABC News poll reports that conservative Trump supporters are feeling good about Trump’s inauguration. Liberals are experiencing increased levels of stress.

This is understandable. But it is unwise. The philosophical tradition teaches us that tranquility is found in ignoring the vicissitudes of political fortune. We must learn to be indifferent to the hot air blowing out of Washington.

Philosophers draw our attention to the impermanence of things. Glory fades. Tragedy is forgotten. The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself.

Climb a mountain and take a look around. The rocks and snows remind us that our foibles are fleeting. We are perched precariously on a fragile planet. Earthquakes and avalanches are indifferent to our suffering. The snow covers the living and the dead.

Mountaintop sages advise patience, persistence and composure. Do good, pursue virtue, but also realize that much is beyond your control. Your efforts, attitudes and emotions are under your control. But you cannot command history or political life.

There is no perfect world or final solution. Failure is always a possibility. Each triumph is only temporary. Each setback is also transitory.

Disasters should not dissuade you from holding fast to what is good and true and right. But success should not convince you that you are special. You must do your best to improve the world in the short time you have been granted. But you must admit that history has a logic of its own.

This is true whether your party wins or loses. The pyramids of Egypt demonstrate that great civilizations eventually are covered in dust. But so what? Egypt gave way to Athens and Rome. And you are here today. There is work to be done. But keep that work in perspective.

Each season gives us winners and losers. This winter, the Pioneer Cabin Tree, a sequoia up in Calaveras County, fell over. A tunnel was carved through that tree in the 19th century. The tree was over 1,000 years old when it collapsed. One Facebook post said, “Nature gave us this beautiful tree and Mother Nature took it down.”

This statement is not entirely true. Everything born must die. But the sequoia’s demise was hastened by those who carved into her base. Trees topple when their roots are weakened. The same is true in politics, culture and in the moral life of the individual. Our values keep us upright through the storms.

Tenacity, modesty, courage and hope are essential. Despair and hubris are deadly, as is irrational hyperbole and fear. Keep at your work. Avoid excess. And practice moderation.

Donald Trump has not provided a model of temperate self-control. He continues to vent his spleen through Twitter. He recently suggested that U.S. intelligence agencies were behaving like Nazis. That hyperbolic rhetoric is matched on the Left by people accusing Trump of fascism. A similar problem is seen in the despair expressed by pundits who worry about the impending collapse of the American republic.

Our country is deeply divided. But we are far from toppling over. The rule of law is firmly in place. Our democratic institutions have deep roots. The Trump era will be different. Some don’t like it. But we are not at the end of the American dream. Not yet.

The dream could end, however, if we cannot find common ground. Philosophers often have been critical of democracy. Democracies collapse as a result of demagoguery and authoritarianism. Partisan rancor destroys the roots of community. Civility nourishes those roots.

Democracy depends upon citizens who are reasonable, virtuous and vigilant. Ignore the immediate bumps on the road, do your work with courage and moderation, and keep your eyes focused on justice.

We would also be wise to cultivate indifference to the grandiose pretensions of the powerful. Long ago, the philosopher Diogenes was sitting in the sun. Alexander the Great walked up and offered to grant him anything he wished. Diogenes said, “I wish you would get out of my sun.”

The worries of Washington cannot prevent the sun from shining. Enjoy your own life. There is always political work to be done. But that work should not undermine your well-being. Climb a mountain. Catch your breath. And remember that this too shall pass.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: fiala.andrew@gmail.com

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