“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
~ Abraham Lincoln
The 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) served four years during the American Civil War until he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. A lawyer by training, Lincoln led the North during the bloodiest conflict in US history and in so doing, he preserved the Union, strengthened the federal government, abolished slavery and modernized the economy. He is considered by many experts to be among the three greatest US presidents!
In this age of spin doctors and image makers who work very hard to convince us to buy into and support an individual that they are promoting, I find these words of Abraham Lincoln very instructive. For many years, I taught high school Civics courses and was forced to wrestle with the principles of the democratic system being sacrificed to the day-to-day struggle for power and good approval ratings as reflected in the never-ending public opinion polls. In theory, the primary role of a politician is to govern well by preserving the safety and economic prosperity of the citizens. In actual practice, the primary objective is to gain power, and then, to maintain power.
What I find particularly disturbing is the means that many politicians and political parties will utilize to achieve their goals. We are presented with pre-packaged candidates who are transformed via physical and wardrobe makeovers so that their external image is flawless. Who are they really? We’ll never know. Even more distressing to me is the enormous sums of money spent on ‘attack ads’ to portray their adversaries as dishonest, inept, or both. They do these things because they work! Our western democratic societies have never been as well-educated as they are today, and yet millions of voters are only too willing to believe everything fed to them by the doctors of spin. Why not? It’s on TV, isn’t it?
Lincoln differentiates between character and reputation and uses an example from Nature to illustrate his point. A tree is the true reality, while the shadow is but a representation. A tree represent’s a person’s character while their reputation is but a shadow – an image conjured in our own minds or by others. Lincoln’s point is that, whether a reputation is good or bad, it is only a shadow of the real person. To base our judgments of people on their reputations serves neither them or ourselves well.
Character is the word that Lincoln focuses upon. It is that combination of mental and moral qualities that distinguishes us from each other. Do we tend to look deeply into ideas or treat them superficially? Is there strength and integrity in our decisions? Do we believe and act upon the principles of fairness, equity, and justice? Do we exemplify what is right or what is expedient? All of these things and more contribute to the man or woman we really are – they make up our character.
Despite all of this wisdom handed down by one of the greatest democratic leaders in history, too many of us are content to let others sell us a packaged image. When we pick our friends, do we take the time to peel away the external packaging to discover a person’s character? Everyone wants to put their best foot forward, and some of us never get past the externals. We’ll spend thousands of dollars to make ourselves look better, whether it be clothing, fitness classes, diets or plastic surgeries. I feel so sad when I see people with carefully packaged images become popular and famous. So what do we spend in time and effort to sculpt or cultivate our true being… our character? Most people pay lip service to the truth that people come to like and/or love us because of who we are, but do they truly believe it?
I can’t answer that question about you or anyone else, but I can and I must ask it of myself. Do I try to surround myself with friends of good character? Or do I prefer those who are obsequious and constantly flatter me? What is it I truly value, the cold hard truth about myself, or a rose-coloured image I have created or allowed others to create for me?
Make no mistake, these are critically important questions for all of us. I distinctly recall that when I was growing up in the 60s, this kind of theme occurred often in the popular music of that decade. That’s not surprising in that there is a lot of wisdom in this idea expressed in Lincoln’s quote. It seems that the older I get, the more I treasure the wisdom of the ages. Thank you, Mr. President!