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Thoughts On George Washington And The Lost Art Of Self-Control

I’m reading through Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington, titled Washington: A Life. One of the things that stands out quickly about Washington is that he had control of himself. His was a combination of stoicism, self criticism for the sake of self-improvement, and a control of his passions. This willpower and personal mastery was crucial toward his temperament that helped lead the founding of the United States, and it’s also part of what left us with such an impression of Washington as a mythical figure.

When I read books I like to check out what the reviewers are saying — what are the people on Amazon, Goodreads, and paid critics taking away once they finish the book? I came across a review from Aram Bakshian Jr. from the Washington Times. He had a marvelous perspective about Washington’s discipline, and the author’s interpretation of it. Bakshian wrote, “Mr. Chernow does a fine job of telling George Washington’s story, although there are moments when he suffers from time warp as a 21st-century writer with Freudian baggage trying to explain an 18th-century gentleman living by a clear code of honor that emphasized quiet courage, dedication to duty and stern self-control rather than getting in touch with one’s inner child. Again and again, Mr. Chernow refers to Washington’s “repressing” or “suppressing” his feelings as if he were dealing with a pathology rather than a triumph of character over impulse.”

I think Bakshian’s take is telling. I only have a loose familiarity with Freud and his school of psychoanalysis — I have read brief biographies of him and his work — but this felt like another confirmation of the idea that our current interpretation of the world is greatly influenced by the Freudian lens.

Freud greatly influenced the field of psychology, and it’s common that any time an issue arises in anyone’s life, the response is to investigate the past or their upbringing rather than investigating their lack of personal responsibility and poor decision making in the here and now. Decisions happening now may be correlated with the past, or maybe we’re transporting a person’s responsibility now to some distant time and place. Even if one were to discover correlative evidence, that doesn’t exactly aid them with the discipline and effort needed to fix their problem now.

I’ve found that in our especially politicized climate — one that’s greatly influenced by a social media machine whose business model benefits from people that are outraged, angry, misplaced emotionally, and an array of negative emotions — we’ve come to celebrate the people who can be the most outspoken. We revere those that are filled with passion and rage and misplaced emotion, and we praise them for supposedly being morally right.

Our praise for the emotional has also lent itself toward a praise for the vulnerable. We see it especially in social media with our desire to overshare and let the world know about the most intimate details of our lives.

The ancient world, and the world that founded the United States, was a dispassionate world. It was a world that viewed the passions as potentially dangerous, as emotions that could get in the way of clear thinking and right action. This world showed us that strength and courage and dignity are often directly tied to having a certain detachment from emotion, and a heroic ability to control the vulnerability for the sake of doing what’s needed at the time. A military leader has to show valor in the face of an opposing army, parents have to be brave when caring for a sick child, and children have to be strong when helping aged loved ones.

This sort of courage isn’t for the sake of denying emotion or turning off one’s feeling, it’s a dignity and grace to encounter trying times in the best possible manner. And that approach is what we all hope for in our leaders and those around us when circumstances are difficult. There isn’t anything particularly inspiring, uplifting, comforting, or encouraging about people who instead of being valiant throw tantrums. Every child can do that.

I wonder if Jack Kennedy, who hid his back problems from the world, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was rarely photographed in his wheelchair, would be criticized today. I can’t help but think that they would. I can’t help but think that people would think that they were denying their vulnerabilities, denying their pain and suffering, and not being emotional and honest enough with the world. I can’t help but think that people wouldn’t recognize that these leaders were by no means trying to hide a truth for the sake of suppressing or repressing, or for the sake of implying that to have problems, which we all do, makes one less than. These leaders were being courageous, and that courage was the face they were showing the nation.

There’s something noble about holding one’s emotions in order to respond to adversity properly, and I think we all admire it even if it seems like something the social media age doesn’t appreciate. If there’s a fire, or a death in the family, or an accident, we all look toward the person who can hold back the emotional reaction in order to respond to the situation at hand. This sort of character is necessary in our families and our communities and our work environments. I hope it’s one that we return to celebrating because we see its usefulness, rather than one we tear down for lacking a supposed nobility of vulnerability, or because it’s apparently negative to be strong rather than reactive.

As Chernow writes about George and Martha Washington, “They both believed in a world replete with suffering in which one muddled through with as much dignity and grace as one could muster. Neither George nor Martha ever reacted to grave setbacks in a maudlin, self-pitying manner.”

I think the Washington family accurately had their finger on the pulse of life. I hope through examples like theirs, we can too.

I'm a communications and content writer. Follow me on Twitter @thediegonetwork.

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