Reflecting on Times that Try Our Souls

Thomas Payne on Sunshine Patriots

I have a Citadel classmate, Rick Hauk, who shares my values and aspirations but who sees very different people and groups as those responsible for our problems.  It may be that in a juxtaposition similar to that between gods and demons in Hindu and Persian cosmology, our heroes and villains are juxtaposed.  Still, we are wholly supportive of each and our criticism is almost always positive, a trait I believe is to at least some extent inspired by our Citadel experience, a view he may not share.

This morning, reflecting on all the week’s cataclysmic natural disasters, two historic hurricanes in the US and a historic earthquake in Mexico, Rick observed that

[W]hat had stricken [him the] … most about the natural disasters of the last few days (Irma, wildfires in California, earthquake in Mexico, etc.)[was] that although technology has the ability to predict, define and quantify the human suffering that results from these phenomena, it is only by human motivation and effort that we seek to mitigate it, and it is only then that we act in concert and rise to our best.

 Concluding, he observed that “[w]e would do well to remember that as we engage in debate over great political issues – that the numbers involved in ‘calculated risks’ represent real people.”

For some reason that brought to mind something happening to me right now involving a brilliant former student with whose political views I almost totally disagree but whom I admire and for whom, as is the case with most of my former students, I have deep affection.  A former student who because of her current employment situation, like so many other people today, is face to face with desperation, a desperation that corrodes her values and beliefs, not because she’s found them lacking but because quotidian demands make them inconvenient.

Many people when faced with attractive and talented others in desperate straits can’t resist the urge, a capitalist-like imperative, to take advantage of the situation for personal gratification, whether involving personal intimacy, business opportunities or political prospects.  Still, for others, it provides an opportunity to test our values and beliefs and to do the right thing, the selfless thing, helping others based on their needs rather than based on our own aspirations.

Frequently, natural calamities bring out our extremes, either for the best or for the worst.  We find looters rampant during natural disasters but also neighbors and strangers banding together, selflessly helping those in need.  The same is true with countries in the international arena, a swamp if there ever was one, Hobbes’ “state of nature” actualized, but as they can tell you in the Louisiana bayous, not all swamps are terrible and as scientists might point out, swamps are the breeding grounds for life.

This morning’s discussion with Rick, as it frequently does, made me wax introspective and analytical, a chance for self-evaluation and improvement; so, … about my former student, this is what I wrote in response to Rick’s comments:

I was recently asked by a brilliant and wonderful former student with political views diametrically opposed to mine (she favors former right wing, anti-peace president Alvaro Uribe) to help her as, probably because of the nature of the Colombian political system (largely patronage-contract based rather than civil service), she has been unemployed all of this year.  Very problematic as it appears she is a single parent.  Because she is desperate she is willing to work with whatever political party will help her find work.  She has always been highly ethical and is disciplined, charismatic, articulate and very well educated with several bachelors’ and masters’ degrees; but now she’s desperate and vulnerable.

 I am loathe to use her desperation to guide her to what I believe is politically appropriate and am trying to persuade the leaders in her favorite political party to help her.  I have quite a bit of credibility with them despite not being among their supporters because I’ve always treated them with respect and dignity despite abhorring their history and believing that their leadership combines the worst of Trump and Clinton.  I’ve done that because I believe that even in the intermediate term that is the strategy most likely to lead them towards my perspectives.  I have done the same with many of our right wing classmates and friends and have made headway in the US, albeit slowly, one heart at a time.  I viciously attack policies and hypocrisy and institutions but try to avoid what I now call the “despicables syndrome”, I try (not always successfully) to avoid personal attacks on their non-leadership level adherents.  And if I got to know their leaders, people I abhor, I would hope to be able to treat them with dignity and affection while opposing them as well.  I’ve had many dreams where I’ve done that with the Clintons, who to me seem historically evil on a global level, as you well know.

 We are least effective in working towards the world we both hope to see when we preach to the choir and ignore our opponents and certainly ineffective when we denigrate and ridicule those we might have converted if we’d not alienated them.  But that road is a hard one to hoe and we all too frequently let our emotions and distaste lead us astray.  As was purportedly the case with Jesus (in whom I do not believe, at least as a divinity, but whose symbolism and folklore I love and respect), we need to get down and dirty with those we need to help save. 

 That is especially true of people like you, who have the character, ethics, education and skills necessary to make a difference.  You are absolutely right, it’s people, individually as well as collectively, rather than mere abstractions, who make a positive difference, especially during the hardest of times.

A bit too self-congratulatory and not especially dripping in humility, one of the virtues I most admire, and perhaps a bit to open for comfort, but I think the observations are accurate and useful to all of us regardless of what our political beliefs are.  We’ve permitted ourselves to be manipulated into a dangerous state of socio-civic polarization, a state where our emotions overwhelm our sense of decency, where disparagement and ridicule rather than logic, persuasion and example rule our discourse, although more often than not, rather than discourse we have a series of monologues disguised as discussions, the intervals where others are expressing their beliefs being just that, intervals during which our attentions wander planning our replies, but not really replies as that would require something to reply too, and not having really listened, we have no real idea what that might be.  And so the gulfs that separate us grow wider and our misunderstandings broader.

Back in the days when I was immersed in the legal profession (an unpleasant interlude between academic experiences) I had a degree of success in negotiations based on a simple technique.  I’d listen quietly to all the parties for a while until I understood their positions from their perspectives and then I usually found that the parties had no real idea what the others thought or why, and that all too frequently they were really not in disagreement.  I would then start my own spiel, more translation than anything else, putting their beliefs into neural language to which all the parties would usually agree, and then they would credit me with wisdom I did not perhaps deserve.  I think we find ourselves in similar situations but impelled there by a few powerful groups addicted to political power for power’s sake, ethically and morally deficient but nonetheless tactically brilliant, knowing exactly which buttons to push to rip us violently asunder.  A tiny but very, very well healed minority; power calcified.

Wedge issues they’re called, those nefarious buttons.  Issues which cannot or will not be resolved thereby raising our hackles almost perpetually, issues like abortion and second amendment rights, issues like racism, xenophobia and misogyny, social issues without real political solutions, especially in a purported libertarian society.  Serious issues but not issues subject to imposed solutions.  Issues that perhaps only cultural tools inherent in art can resolve, issues that require changes in our souls rather than mental machinations and rhetorical tricks.  Issues which make it possible to ignore real political themes, like growing income inequality, like corrupt, interventionist foreign affairs, like human rights, like democratic governance, like equity and justice, the issues that terrify them.


Today we find ourselves in the unexpectedly wonderful position (a kind of a reverse Murphy syndrome), at least during this apparently terrible week, of seeing our fellow human beings, many of whom we’ve ridiculed and disdained, prove to be something very different, something beautiful and noble, something worthy of hope.  Perhaps you too can join me in reflecting introspectively, then in listening to those whose views you oppose but, rather than seeing in them targets for ridicule, seeing them as opportunities for mutual growth and understanding.  Perhaps we can reject the polarization that’s been imposed on us by those unworthy of our trust or our political contributions or our votes.  Those who see as tools that can be used when organizing “fake spontaneous demonstrations”, when seeking volunteers for politically useful martyrdom and if volunteers are not available, well then, … “you know what you have to do”.

How amazing would it be if during these very difficult days we actually managed to come together rather than drift apart?  If we managed to reflect on eloquently espoused ideals all too seldom realized?  If peace and the common welfare and the golden rule, domestically and internationally, became our bywords; and equity and equality and justice rather than power and goods and cash our objectives.

As Thomas Paine, the complex Scottish revolutionary said to us in his pamphlet in the series, The American Crisis (with which perhaps too few of us are familiar): “these are the times that try men’s souls”.  Perhaps, like the best steel, we’ll come out of these trials better than before, maybe even better than ever.  Maybe even finding our way back home, or at least to the home we’ve always wished we’d had.

Here’s hoping.

© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved.  Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.

Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia although he has primarily lived in the United States of America (of which he is a citizen).  Until recently he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales.  He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies).  He can be contacted at or and much of his writing is available through his blog at

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