One of the cherished gifts given to me on my ordination to the priesthood was an original signed serigraph by the contemporary California artist and, at the time, a member of the Immaculate Heart of Mary religious community, Sr. Corita Kent. Influenced by the artistic trends of the time, including ‘pop art,’ she developed a unique style incorporating vibrant colors together with text. The texts could range from phrases culled from grocery store items, such as “Wonder Bread” and its association to the Eucharist, to evocative quotations from contemporary authors. My gift was emblazoned with a quote from the French philosopher and Christian existentialist, Gabriel Marcel. It reads:
We can only speak of hope
My relationship to myself is mediated by the presence of the other person, by what he is for me and what I am for him. To love any body is to expect something from him, something which can neither be defined nor forseen; it is at the same time in someway to make it possible for him to fulfill this expectation Yes, paradoxical as it may seem, to expect is in someway to give: but the opposite is none the less true; no longer to expect is to strike with the sterility the being from whom no more is expected. It is then in some way to deprive him or to take from him in advance what is surely a certain possibility of inventing or creating. Everything looks as though we can only speak of hope where the interaction exists between him who gives and him who receives.
This beautiful quote has served me well over the years, pointing to a key element in leadership. Leadership of integrity always involves the element of reciprocity. Good leaders never lead in isolation or are foolish enough to think that they alone ‘can fix’ the challenging problems of our contemporary society. Wisdom in leadership emerges out of the respectful civil ‘give and take’ between those who lead and those who are being led. The genius of the framers of our Constitution is rooted precisely in this creative tension between our elected officials and those who have elected them. The tripartite structure of governance, the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial, function best when there is a respectful and civil reciprocity between these three branches of governance – a reciprocity that, in respecting their relative independence, serve best the common good.
I fear that these days, reciprocity and civility are becoming rare commodities in the forging of the common good. Never before have I witnessed such polarization, animosity and incivility in what was at one time considered the noble profession of the politician. Sadly, much of it is emerging from the top. Gridlock and name calling, demonization of the motives of others and a lack of interest in achieving compromise, feed the present toxic political malaise. I was struck this weekend when the respected senator from Arizona, John McCain, in an interview with David Axelrod on CNN, stated that he “is more worried about this country than I’ve been in my entire life.”
In the face of such a crisis, it is the virtue of hope, forged through the messiness of dialogue with ‘the other,’ that will save us.