OP-EDS

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January 23, 2009

Inspiration without perspiration

There are enough role models out there—it’s time to stop admiring and start emulating

[img id="77174" align="alignleft"] President Obama, a man universally admired for his poise and self-control, is greeted by shrieking fans whenever he appears in public. The object of a fanatical cult of personality, the President has made a point of saying “we” instead of “me” in his speeches and, with obvious sincerity, humbly played down the importance of his office and his role in history.

To celebrate the installation of a man esteemed for his work ethic, many thousands of Americans took off from work and set out for Washington, D.C. Traveling by car and plane, they blithely guzzled gallons of gas to celebrate his promise to heal the world. Impressed by his stern commitment to a new fiscal austerity, they paid for those gallons and asked their fellow taxpayers to pay millions more for the cleanup crews, the vast security measures, and the veritable army of portable toilets necessary to accommodate their numbers.

We admire, but we do not emulate.

During my years at the University of Chicago, I have spent many hours watching certain movies and television episodes in search of inspiration to become a better person. Whenever my strength waned, I would seek refuge in a community of virtual saints. The Lord of the Rings gave me Aragorn, who became a king among men for his fearlessness under fire and his self-control so towering that it puts even Obama to shame. 24 gave me Jack Bauer, who stoically endured the most monstrous torture in the service of his country. Star Trek gave me Captain Jean-Luc Picard, whose incredible leadership was surpassed only by his compassion, open-mindedness, and love of learning and science. And for a time, seeing these great men in action again and again did make me better. But after a while, they only paralyzed me. Whenever real virtue became too burdensome, I retreated to my community of saints, lapping up vicarious virtue, dreaming big but never waking up to act big, pretending that becoming inspired to do good works is no less estimable than taking the hard steps to actually do them. So instead of doing what was best, I stared at a computer screen.

Much has been made of how President Obama can be a great president by being an inspiring leader. I say, no thanks. We already have enough role models, both real and imagined. How much inspiration do we need before we start doing what we know to be right?

We want to have our cake and eat it too. Obama makes us feel good about our potential, but every moment we spend joyfully meditating on that potential is a moment we don’t have to fulfill that potential. Every dollar we spend on inauguration festivities is a dollar that we don’t spend on rebuilding New Orleans or fighting AIDS in Africa.

The false promise of inspiration is that it feels good to be good. Obama knows better, telling us in his inaugural address that the American way “has not been the path for the faint-hearted—for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.” In fact, even the most celebrated are still obscure in their labor. We admire them for their accomplishments, but we do not see them in their travails. We watched Obama smiling daily on the campaign trail, but we did not see him in his hotel room late each night when he collapsed in exhaustion from endless hours of speeches and glad-handing. Everyone remembers Abraham Lincoln. Not so many remember that he suffered from crippling depression that nearly caused him to take his life even before he took upon himself the burdens of our country’s most heartbreaking war. For men in such circumstances, the only comfort is conviction and the only inspiration comes from deep within.

But we are faint-hearted: We admire, but still we do not emulate.