If I were on one end of an I-beam and you on the other, and I offered you $10 to cross it as long as you didn’t step off either side, could you do it?
An I-beam is one of those six-inch-at-most-wide steel rails used in high-rise construction. The one you’re being asked to cross is 120-feet long and is sitting on the ground. So, no danger should you slip and fall. Of course if you did, no $10. But then no bodily harm either.
You’d probably be able to do it.
But what if we loaded that 120-foot I-beam on a semi with a set of wheels under the far end and transported it to a pair of twin towers where cranes atop those buildings lifted that I-beam such that each end rested on a 6-inch ledge thus spanning the gulf some 20 stories off the ground? Now you’re standing on the I-Beam with your back against the window out of which you’ve just crawled and I’m leaning out the window of the other tower and I holler “If you can cross this I-Beam – without stepping off either side – I’ll give you $10!”
Would you do it?
How about $1,000,000 in unmarked bills, IRS won’t touch it? By the way, did I mention that there’s a bit of a gale blowing, 60 mph in fact. And it’s raining. And oh yes, the I-beam has a slight bow in it, warped in other words (kind of like what you’re thinking my thinking is – warped)?
With that much money at stake you might make the attempt.
Now, give me the name of someone really important to you.
No more Mister Nice Guy. I’ve got that person by the hair and I repeat the offer. Cross the I-Beam or I drop him or her.
Would you do it?
When I first heard this story, the teller of which I now forget, he said that in the audiences he addressed invariably if the person grasped by the hair was a teenager the parent replied “Drop him.”
But what the speaker was helping folks identify were their Governing Values. For some it was money - as long as there was enough of it. For most others it was family members.
For Lincoln it was the 13th Amendment.
In writing the script for “Lincoln”, directed by Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner jokingly said he’d read his "967,000th book about Abraham Lincoln". Kushner seemed to be most impressed by the President’s “thinking and ethical deliberation.” That document, that piece of paper - that would abolish slavery and make history - was poignantly and angrily held aloft, or was jabbed at or pounded on with a long bony finger, by the agitated Lincoln so that all his waffling cabinet would know that “this President of the United States of America, clothed with immense power” would himself personally see to its passage, for now was the time and this was the place. “We are stepped out upon the world stage now, with the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood's been spilled to afford us this moment! Now, now, now!”
Without such a governing value – that all men are created equal – how else to weather the contentious debates, oversee the efforts to secure the necessary votes, and monitor peace efforts through the horrors of the Civil War let alone stay the course through the emotional upheavals at home as Lincoln declared to his dear Mary:
“I must make my decisions, you yours and bear what we must, hold and carry what we must. What I carry within me - you must allow me to do it, alone, as I must - and you alone Mary, you alone may lighten this burden or render it intolerable as you choose.”
There isn’t any other way.
As we approach this New Year and make our resolutions, along with the dream of realizing an exercise program or “two cars in the driveway and a barbecue in the backyard”, giving some time to think and reflect and deliberate on the more great and noble and ethical of aspirations – our governing values – that alone can help us navigate the future and align our personal ‘ship of state’ keeping us true to the compass values we’ve chosen - is a most worthy and urgent endeavor.
After all, throughout history, “at many turning points, it was the commanding presence of an individual – Washington, Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, the Roosevelts, and Susan B. Anthony, to name a few – that determined events, rather than the force of any idea or movement. Great ideals and noble causes have died for lack of a champion.” (“Don’t Know Much About History”, introduction xvi, by Kenneth C. Davis)