In his classic poem, “The Character of the Happy Warrior,” William Wordsworth begins by asking the question, “Who is the happy warrior?” He then lays out in powerful prose a wide range of traits worthy of pursuit. In our day of angry politics, divisive rhetoric and dehumanizing contempt, the country could use a few more happy warriors.
Recently on my radio program, I played a series of clips from interviews I have done with some of the great thought leaders, writers and happy warriors in the country. The framing question was, “Will America be OK?” The responses from people such as David Brooks, former Sen. Joe Lieberman, Sheri Dew, Sen. Ben Sasse, Bob Woodward and UVU president Astrid Tuminez were insightful and inspiring, thoughtful and hope-filled for the future of the country.
The reaction to the segment was overwhelmingly positive. There were a few, however, that accused me of being soft, wearing “rose-colored-glasses,” being naïve, a sellout, being an apologist (amazingly for both the liberal left and conservative right), having my head in the sand and a few other things unfit to print. I am always fascinated by how individuals can interpret the same information in such vastly different ways.
To be clear, there are significant issues and challenges in this country that need to be addressed. There are founding principles to defend, vulnerable people and a planet to protect, out of control spending and debt to correct, mass violence to end, societal ills to combat, minority and religious rights to preserve, and the list goes on. I know for certain that a group hug is not going to solve any of these issues and that there will be real battles in the years ahead on what to do, how to solve such challenges and, yes, even fights about the fundamental tenants governing our republic. These battles will not be for the faint of heart.
America is always better when we address our difficulties with big ideas along with open, honest and even roiling debate. Yes, big battles about big ideas and principles are at the heart of the American experiment. We need to remember that having a big debate or a fundamental disagreement doesn’t mean that we have to be mean, or even demeaning, to those we disagree with. The marketplace of ideas that is America need not be an isolated ideological battlefield — we can do better.
I have met happy warriors on the political left and the political right. I have met angry warriors on both sides as well. Being an angry warrior is exhausting to the individual and exasperating to others. The. Rev. Amos Brown described the difference between the happy and angry warrior by saying that it is a choice — to become bitter, or to get better.
Regardless of political persuasion, it is wise to be careful that we don’t make the mistake of assuming a happy warrior is somehow not a warrior. I have observed that angry warriors may win a few battles, but they rarely win the war and never win the hearts and minds of those that are actually persuadable.
I was reminded that the true warrior is successful not because he or she hates what is in front of them but because of the love they have for what is behind them. I think that is true whether it is the physical fight of war or a battle for principles, values or public policy.
Wordsworth concludes his poem with a reflection on what the end of the battle might include for the warrior. Again, I think this applies to the philosophical, political, social and moral battles of our day and the way we can and should approach them.
Finds comfort in himself and in his cause;
And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws
His breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause:
This is the happy Warrior; this is He
That every man (and woman) in arms should wish to be.
In my interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning author George Will, he described the happy warrior approach this way: “Be cheerful. We have far too much teeth-gritted politics and fist-clenched politics. Step back and understand something, that this is a country people are fighting to get in. This is a country with big problems. But that’s because it’s a big, successful country. … So stand back and understand that there’s not only a moral obligation to be intelligent. There’s a moral obligation to be cheerful while you’re being intelligent.”
I would add that the happy warrior is also wise enough to know that sometimes instead of engaging in a battle for the “soul of a political party” or even the “soul of the nation,” the happy warrior should go in search of that soul instead.