Last weekend I tuned in to “highlights” of the impeachment trial, and nothing was a surprise. Democrats pointing to witness-supported evidence that “the president placed his personal political interests above the interests of the United States” and Republicans excusing what reeks as unconstitutional as nothing more than the unconventional Trump style that populism craves. Television tedium often directs thoughts inward, and I began thinking about what calibrates my own ethical compass. And then, in the midst of introspection, the untimely death of Kobe Bryant flashed across the screen.
The news of the nine victims silenced all other events. In the days that followed I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about life and its fragile nature. I say “inordinate” because living is activity, not the cognition of it, yet it is the consideration and evaluation of our actions that lead to better lives.
A bigger question arose: If life is so precarious, what is its meaning? Poet/philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived.”
I don’t agree with the prefatory statement, however, that life’s purpose “is not to be happy.” Happiness is central to motivation. Joy results from being useful, honorable and compassionate, and frames our purpose. Controversy will follow the legacy of Kobe Bryant, but I recalled when he became a father and noted he found meaning. I believe he discovered a purpose in life from the commitment to hand the next generation better tools and more fertile soil from which to sow the seeds of their own ambitions.
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When we fail politically, socially, or environmentally, we have failed in that purpose.
My thoughts circled back to the impeachment. Donald Trump did not create our political dysfunction, nor is he the first president to have corrupt impulses. His rhetoric and actions are the result of decades of misdirection; he is an inevitable demagogue at a confluence of disenfranchised populists, tribalism, and Wild West social media. The result of that convergence is a compromise of our purpose as a nation. The beacon of impartial justice that once illuminated America’s path has been walled by a myopic view, confined by fear, and the “lamp beside the golden door” has dimmed. World history has seen kings, dictators, and misguided presidents before, and all are vanquished eventually, but only after the people rise collectively to reclaim the realm. A moral reckoning is at hand to light our disparate ways.
The next generation is our legacy, and we are handing them a less secure future. Whether we’re talking climate, education costs, access to health care, living wages, or threat of war, their reality is plagued with doubt.
It was a plague that wiped out half of Europe in the 14th century and the future was determined by cold attrition. Today another disease is wiping out our decency and the fundamental meaning of life: to be useful, honorable, and compassionate.
That is the impeachment trial we should all tune in to.
Gary Kroeger is a local business owner and advertising executive in Cedar Falls.