The following is Steding’s keynote address at the Third Congressional District (D3) Summit in Ridgway, Colorado on July 21, 2017.
Recently, I watched an interview of Elon Musk, the great inventor, entrepreneur, and American immigrant from the 2017 TED conference. He discussed the many seemingly outrageously optimistic objectives he has for everything from building a new tunnel system for commuters under Los Angeles to his new line of Tesla cars. If you haven’t seen him interviewed before, he is a very kinetic individual. His eyes, which flutter and dart from one idea to the next, reveal the intensity of his ambition and the size of his intellect. Toward the end of the interview when asked why he pursues so many objectives with such confidence and abandon, Musk’s eyes settled, and he did something we rarely see him do, he paused. He paused, took a deep breath, and simply answered: “I’m not trying to be anyone’s savior … I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.” That simple and heartfelt response really resonated with me when I think about the future of America, and I suspect many of you here today share Musk’s sentiment: when we think about the future of America, we just don’t want to be sad—for ourselves, friends, family, neighbors, town, state, county, country and world.
Today we should also remind ourselves that there are many reasons the United States is the envy of the world. We actually do things right most of the time. As Winston Churchill once suggested, we get things right after trying everything else first. Americans are imaginative, optimistic, hopeful, caring, hard working and always have an unshakable desire to do better in the future. And yes, American’s are also precocious, arrogant, and even grotesque, a perplexing combination often creating confusion around the world.
We believe we can make ourselves into whatever we want, unencumbered by where we were born or whom our daddy is. Our ancestors do not define our stake in the world. Our self-image is largely prospective. This uniquely American condition requires, at its very core, that we be individually capable of exercising free choice and willing to accept the consequences of those choices, including electing folks who will represent us in a fair and respectful manner. In short, we must exert our political will. Otherwise, we end up with elected officials who want to “take America back again,” which is foolhardy to suggest and frankly impossible to accomplish because, as Roger Cohen, columnist for The New York Times and new resident to Ridgway wrote recently, America is always “ceaselessly becoming.” Those who peddle fear, anger, and intolerance only act to reveal their own shortcomings and their own misunderstanding of what truly makes America great. Those who embrace hope, summon courage, and engage with empathy for their fellow citizens must unite to stem the tide of vitriol and secure the future of an America that preserves the prospect of the American dream for future generations.
· I believe that the values of the vast majority of Americans will prevail over those who espouse win/lose, zero-sum thinking, wrapped in deceit and fear.
· I believe we will return as exemplars of self-restraint and moderation, rather than zealous missionaries of consumptive duplicity.
· I believe we will renew our commitment to diversity and find a way to keep the gates of America open.
· I believe we will educate our children to know more than we do—that we will succeed in enabling their dreams.
· I believe we can and will rein in the effects of climate change and eliminate the use of fossil fuels altogether, perhaps even in my lifetime.
· I believe we can engineer a system that protects and rewards merit balanced by empathy and mitigate the pernicious effects of concentrated wealth and its natural progeny plutocracy.
· I believe we can be good stewards of a globalizing world and that we will continue to be welcomed in the capitols of the world as those who enable and lift the lives of others—who compete to cooperate.
· I believe we will honor our American heritage and come together to relight the city upon the hill, rather than strut down the path to irrelevance.
But it all depends on the will of the people, of the will of folks like you, the self-chosen ones who have accepted the responsibility to rescue our imperiled union and the values of liberty and justice for all from those who wish to turn back the progress made by now seven generations of great Americans.
It is our collective political will that will successfully navigate this period of crisis and transform our identity from superpower to global stewards; that the nation of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton will not become an isolated, self-centered, and decaying archetype of liberty. And while there is never a clear roadmap toward a certain future, history suggests that Americans will do what they have always done: combine seemingly disconnected and disparate ideas and materials into new inventions and innovations to create previously unimaginable solutions to our greatest challenges.
Your future and the future of this country are in your hands. And, although the challenge seems daunting at times, you and your family, neighbors and friends have the power. I want to turn now to something you’ll need on this journey—to exercise your political will—and that is what I call transcendent courage.
There are five elements of transcendent courage:
1. The first is the capacity to see things as they are, which comprise what I call your truth. The truth in transcendent courage is based in the simple reality that we know what the right thing is to do. The difficulty comes in listening to and honoring our sense of truth (allowing its transcendence) against the pressures of competing influences. Those who possess transcendent courage are the most innocently (or unapologetically) honest among us. They live in their truth all day, every day.
2. The second element of transcendent courage is the capacity to subordinate consequence to the necessity of action; consequences are inconsequential. Fears are faced down. The prospect of immeasurable burden is accepted with grace and dignity. Risk, ridicule, and loss are accepted as the inevitable partners of a courageous life, one which, above all, honors (its truth.
3. The third element of transcendent courage is selflessness. Many people define their lives by their service to others. They measure their self-worth by the extent to which they make others smarter, healthier, happier, and safer. Teachers, doctors, clergy, police, firefighters, paramedics, military, and community volunteers come readily to mind. By their very nature or life choice, people who spend their time serving others have a significantly greater propensity to possess transcendent courage. Service to others teaches us the intrinsic value of selflessness. It isolates the influence of adoration and compensation from consideration. It gives us the opportunity to embrace our humanity and feel connected to community while enhancing our self-esteem. Selflessness produces that warm feeling many call peace. Selflessness is the liberation of the soul from the oppression of our desires.
4. The fourth element of transcendent courage is self-acceptance. Are you comfortable in your own skin? Do you like you? Have you resolved with yourself who you are? People who have access to transcendent courage accept who they are and live lives bounded by dignity and imbued with grace. They are at peace with themselves, in the present.
5. The fifth element of transcendent courage is the transmission of strength. I’d like to tell you about Sara. I met Sara at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders where she was being treated for an aggressive form of leukemia and where I was a volunteer. Sara was five when she started her treatment and like most five-year old girls Sara liked everything as long as it was pink, purple or somehow related to Barbie. Sara had pale, crystal-blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair, always gathered with a satin, clip-on bow. She loved to have her nails painted and preferred patent leather shoes. Soft and shiny was her style, which meant that both silk and fleece could be mixed in the same outfit without offending her aesthetic sensibilities. Sometimes she looked like a kid who had dressed herself while standing in her closet, blindfolded. Everyone who spent just five minutes with Sara loved her, including me. Sara is the most courageous person I have ever known. During Sara’s three years of horror battling leukemia I never saw her cry out, whine or complain. I will never forget the last few days before Sara’s death. Sara was the first one to accept what was coming. She helped everyone else through the painful anticipation of losing her. She smiled every moment she was awake. She never expressed concern for herself. She only wanted to make sure her mother, father, and little brother would be okay. Sara’s legacy is the strength she transmitted to those around her. Her courageous behavior made anyone who was in contact with her a better and stronger person. This is the fifth and final element of transcendent courage. Those who act courageously enhance the lives and behaviors of everyone around them.
Those of you who marched on January 21st of this year are really no different than those who tossed tea into Boston Harbor launching the American Revolution for independence, or the abolitionists who fought to redeem America from its original sin of slavery, or who fought fascism in the 1930s and 40s, or those who rallied to the side of civil rights and against the Viet Nam War in the 1960s. You are the true patriots, the chosen ones to protect and assure our future.
At D3 we have adopted an ethic—a manifesto—of “six words to write on the wall” to guide our efforts.
1. Authentic. Keep it real, and keep it true. In periods of crisis there is not enough slack in the system to reward work that is almost right. Only the real stuff wins. The question is, what is the fundamental value you wish to express in its simplest form? Seek to promote values that are pervasive and durable throughout the system, product, policy, or personal regimen. Once identified, set them like cornerstones to support everything you do. The best example of authenticity I can offer you is Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who launched a civil rights revolution with fewer resources than any of us has today. He had no money, no weapons, no statutory power, and no technology—no Internet, social media, cellphones, or even fax. But, he had authentic beliefs and convictions that resonated with millions of people, expressed as his “Dream.”
2. Resilience. Here is a not-so-newsy flash: you, your family, your company, your community, your city, and your country will suffer a blow or blows as we unwind from the current crisis in the chaotic and messy climb toward a new more settled state. Crises, like forest fires, are indiscriminate. Even if you avoid catastrophic damage, collateral damage is a certainty. Many herald schemes of sustainability and independence, but they are just part of this larger objective of resilience. To survive we must have the ability to bounce back. In our personal lives, this means we have to be mentally and physically fit, and have access to sufficient financial and human resources. Have go-to folks that can bolster your efforts in those areas where they are stronger than you. Take personal responsibility for your lot, however you define it. When the blow comes take the hit, dust yourself off, and get ready to hit back. Make yourself a hard target.
3. Gonzo. Honor the ethic given us by the late Hunter S. Thompson. In shorthand, gonzo means that you should write all the rules down so you know what not to do. Channel your inner Gonzo. The vast majority of rules, policies, and structures were adopted to protect those in power, not to protect or serve you. In the ascent from crisis, those who set aside tradition and define their world in their own terms will be profoundly successful and yes, much happier. When you face the inevitable admonishment “you can’t do that” or “that isn’t allowed,” simply respond: watch me.
4. Transcendent. Rise above the rabble. Don’t be drawn into the muck of ignorance that is so-often the marker of organizations and factions whose survival depends on the condemnation of opposing perspectives. Be wary of ideologies and theologies that practice judgment and condemnation. They are debilitating. Retain your free will. Read often and deeply; look for character, structure, and meaning. Pursue knowledge beyond your comfort zone. What does the artist know or do that might benefit the scientist? This is the best way to nurture the power of an opposable mind. An opposable mind is always open to new ideas that create solutions no one else has thought of—that transcend the moment.
5. Stealth. High profiles are dangerous in periods of crisis. Humility and self-restraint are clearly preferable to hubris. There are many people who enjoy health, wealth, and happiness who never stick their head in front of the camera. Be like them.
6. Grace. There are many definitions and interpretations of grace, so let me start by suggesting the grace I speak of is when the proper balance of virtues are combined with other elements and resources to produce something beautiful. A state of grace then is the modality that produces beauty, whether it is an object, product, service, idea, or writing. Pierre-Auguste Renoir often argued that the most durable things in the world are those that are beautiful. Grace is the capacity to bring everything together in such a way that people say wow that is beautiful, or amazing, or just plain cool. I am suggesting that grace is when you bring authenticity, resilience, gonzo, transcendence, and stealth together in just the right way to assure your destiny—which is indeed a truly beautiful thing. Then, you are in a state of grace.
In my final comments today, I’d like to share a poem by William Ernest Henley, written in 1875 and subsequently published under the title, Invictus. I use it as a source of strength and inspiration when the world seems daunting.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
“We the People,” is arguably the most powerful phrase ever written in the history of humankind. But remember this: no one person has the authority to decide who “the people” are, yet each one of us bears the responsibility of making the “we” happen.
Go forth to engage and unite with a calm sense of resilience to establish a new America whose influence is gained not coercively, but referentially by empowering people throughout both America and the world. This is not a fearful America, nor is it bounded by bigger walls and bigger guns. It is an America that believes in itself and its traditions of inclusion and empathy, and of its passion for education, innovation, and leadership. This America views dynamism and creative destruction as prerequisites to continued greatness, rather than a “great” that can only be found in a romanticized Rockwellian past.
Our future will be determined by the decisions and actions of individual Americans every day. Like water carving a new gorge in a mountain of stone, it will be the collective will of the people, expressed in their nearly imperceptible movements that will set the course of the future. I believe that the loudest, most angry, and most fearful among us will not prevail; it will be the actions—not rhetoric—of the vast majority of us who decide how to behave as Americans that will lead America into a bright and prosperous future.
Thank you very much.