Last week, at an event in North Carolina, Reverend Franklin Graham urged Americans to “come together as a nation and focus on the problems” such as immigration and trade. To many Americans, it’s not quite that simple. Some Americans believe that President Trump has made America great, while others believe that he has made America grate. The shifting of one’s perspective makes a difference not just in red and blue terms, but also in seeing real-life issues, as well.
In Cleveland, for example, fifty percent of children now live in poverty. For the other fifty percent, America may be great, but for the half living in poverty America is hardly great or good. For the Americans who benefited from the tax reform bill that passed last year — or for those whose wealth has increased from the rising stock market — America is great. But for the Americans who are still struggling because wages haven’t appreciably increased, living in America is sometimes a struggle that defies and denies opportunity.
I am not making a political statement here; I’m just stating the facts and trying to see the different and divergent points of view. It’s hard for America to come together when there are such different perspectives. But these perspectives are based on selective reality — totally different experiences that block and obscure appreciation for the other side and for the other opinion.
It used to be that, whatever our circumstances, we could see the other’s point of view. The unifying factor was an aspirational value that we called the American Dream. That dream presented limitless perceived possibilities for rich and poor, worker and executive, urban dweller and rural resident, minority and majority, immigrant and native. The dream — along with other aspirational values such as equality, freedom and opportunity — represented the central core that held America together. For years, the universal buy-in of these aspirational values was ratified by surveys conducted by the Pew Trust and other organizations.
The seismic shift that is happening now is that Americans of different backgrounds and outlooks no longer see our aspirational values as applying equally to all. Depending on one’s circumstances, Americans are more and more staking out polar opposite positions on these values. Rather than searching for a common good, Americans are seeing a zero-sum game. Your dream takes away from my dream. Your opportunity takes away from my children’s opportunity. Your freedom infringes on my freedom. Your equality diminishes my opportunity, and so on.
America has lost that central core that has held us together in common good and common ground. Kind of like the parable of the pinecone.
In Values-in-Action’s Project Love character-development and teacher training and in our VIA workforce programming, we have been using the pinecone as a metaphor for years. Both students and teachers get it.
You see, the pinecone represents the human condition in America and elsewhere — in every organization, in every community and in every school. The pinecone has lots of different arms which open beautifully on every side, giving it a majestic, triangle-like appearance. Let’s say that these arms represent different people, each having their own origin, background, outlook, bias and agenda.
But these arms don’t exist in a vacuum. They are held together and operate in tandem through a central core, which enables them to work as one organism. Without the central core, the arms would fall apart, each being left to go it alone. The one organism would devolve into many disparate pieces.
Any organization, country, school or business that is working well works as one organism because the central core (their core-values) defines the rules, values, goals, missions and visions. All the separate arms — call them people — buy into the shared values. Without the central core, the pinecone is no longer a pinecone.
America needs to reclaim its central core. Without its central core, America will no longer be America.
I believe that Lady Gaga has an idea that is worth embracing because it proposes a central value that has no polar opposite. That central value and central core is kindness. And the reason why this can work is that the polar opposite of kindness is meanness. You can’t say that my kindness takes away from your kindness. In practice and in science, that is proven to be untrue. Your kindness enhances my kindness. When one person sees an act of kindness — even if they didn’t perform the act — their endorphins (happy hormones) increase. They are more positive. They are less selfish. And they want to pay it forward.
Kindness creates a chain reaction of positivity, something that all Americans need, something that we all can appreciate. Rich Americans, poor Americans, immigrants, natives, workers, executives, children, adults, old and young can relate equally to kindness.
Here is what Lady Gaga recently said:
“The really fantastic thing about kindness is that it’s free and it can’t hurt you or anybody else. It is the thing that brings us all together. In times of chaos and crisis, what we all tend to do is to start pointing fingers at where we think the bad guys are, where the evil is. We start arguing. Everybody has different opinions about that …. We need to shift the perspective. The solution is that we need to build a kinder and braver world.”
One more thing about the pinecone. If you submerge the pinecone in water for one hour, the open arms will completely shut tight. The pinecone will close completely. The arms are no longer actively working together because the pinecone has shut down. Kind of like, when you throw water on someone’s ideas, people shut down and close up.
That’s America today. We are a closed pinecone. The central core is no longer visible, and we are no longer working together because we no longer believe in the universality of our shared values. But the arms are still there, ready to open wide once it dries out and the sunlight brings its optimism back.
It may sound too simple for some — the idea that kindness can be a solution, a central core, the light that brings us back to working together for some common good. But kindness is a gateway. It leads to other things, among which are reaching out to others, having regard and empathy for others and, ultimately, listening to and respecting others. We need more intentional kindness every day, not just occasional random acts. Mark Twain once said that “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” Let’s give it a try. Kindness can be our guide to a greater America.
Stuart Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation, which through its Project Love®, VIA® Workforce Training, Purple America® and Be Kind® Stick Together® character-education programs, has 400,000 students participating in more than 1500 schools in all 50 states. Values-in-Action empowers students and adults to build communities of kindness, caring and respect through programs that teach, promote, and provide skills and tools that enable individuals to make positive values-based decisions every day. www.viafdn.org