It’s easy to be cynical sometimes, especially as waves of vituperative accusations wash over our nation in the political campaign season. It’s easy to believe that people are as vicious and untrustworthy as the commercials we see.
Easy, but not true.
The United Way’s Day of Caring is a welcome antidote to the creeping cynicism so many fall into. It’s a reminder that most people are decent enough and, given the chance, they’ll show it. It’s a rebuttal to the idea that people don’t care about the community, or that the political divisions must necessarily divide us.
Early American presidential elections don’t have a lot in common with what we see today. The first two under the Constitution didn’t even have two candidates; George Washington was unopposed. And overt campaigning was so distasteful for the better part of a century that candidates would suggest friends keep their names out of it even as they urged letters in support of their candidacies.
There were recognizable elements, though, and the election of 1800 is a good example. It was the first time a sitting president, in this case John Adams, lost a bid for re-election. There were genuine questions about whether he would hand over power to President-elect Thomas Jefferson as prescribed. The two were allies turned rivals, and the idea of a peaceful transfer of power between opponents was nearly as revolutionary as the idea a colony could separate itself from the British Empire.
Adams did relinquish power. And Jefferson, in his inaugural address, was among the first to attempt to reconcile the nation after a bitter election. “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things,” he said.
And, later, Jefferson returned to the theme: “But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
There was, of course, more than a note of hypocrisy. Jefferson made full use of newspapers aligned with his positions during the campaign, and it’s well worth noting the concept of a neutral press hadn’t even been conceived.
The point, though, remains. A flawed messenger delivered an important reminder.
Our nation has most often set aside the worst of the campaign bitterness after elections. Even if those elected fail to do so, the people usually recognize the need to do so to ensure simple functioning of communities in their daily lives.
We cannot let the tensions of an election season obscure the reality that most people are of good will, that they are willing to work together to improve our imperfect land. The idea that people are too selfish, too shortsighted to believe in and support something greater than themselves falls away when you witness them coming forward to serve others. And that’s what the Day of Caring reminds us of.
The event itself was Friday. There is no reason it should not serve as a reminder that service and commitment to others are a constant need. Opportunities exist, if we’re willing to take advantage of them.
Myriad service organizations exist that people can become members of. And such efforts need not take place under the auspices of an organization. Gestures as small as helping an elderly neighbor move a garbage can to the curb can help brighten someone’s day.
We don’t always have to agree with one another. In fact, it’s healthy that we don’t. Unanimous agreement on all issues is always artificial. Different points of view are natural, part of simply being human.
How we handle those differences is always our choice, though, as is whether we yield to cynicism.
We’ll be better off if we resist such a temptation, no matter what the talking heads on the latest commercials say.