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Make Gentle the Life of This World

Natalie GochnourMy husband and I ride our bikes together along the Jordan River Parkway several times a week. We love cycling because you see and feel things in a different way. The Wasatch Range, sunsets, wildlife and other details feel closer and more real. There is a depth of feeling that you just can’t find when you are behind a windshield or on a city street.

For the past several months, this richness of feeling has been upended by the constant presence of flags flying at half-staff in neighboring yards and businesses. Our moods turn somber as we discuss the latest mass shooting, police killing or terrorist event.

We were both born in the 1960s and have faint, but vivid memories of the monumental social and political events that rocked our country during that decade. On a recent bike ride my husband said to me, “America feels like Vietnam again.” That was a sobering thought.

A message for turbulent times

I was young at the time of Vietnam, but I do remember Walter Cronkite reporting the day’s body count as images of black bags were loaded off military transport planes. I remember my mother’s anxious eyes as my brother was drafted into the army and then assigned a tour of duty. And I remember when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and how it impacted the atmosphere in our home. These were difficult times and there’s a lesson for us today.

At the time of King’s death, Robert F. Kennedy delivered a speech that put words to this lesson. Those of you who are familiar with the story will recall that Kennedy was a candidate for president and making a campaign stop in Indianapolis. Shortly after getting off the plane, he was informed of King’s death and had the awful task of delivering the news to the waiting crowd. In what can only be described as an extraordinary eulogy, Kennedy spoke from the heart about King’s life and the future of our country.

He said, “In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are and what direction [do] we want to move in.” He said we can move in the direction of bitterness, hatred, revenge and greater polarization, or we can make an effort as King did to “…understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.”

Later in the same spontaneous speech Kennedy referenced the need to “make gentle the life of this world.” It’s a turn of phrase I’ve never forgotten since the first time I read it. What did he mean? What wisdom does it hold for today?

As I’ve contemplated these questions I’ve concluded that the word “gentle” does not mean weak, but rather strong. A kindly and tender nature—like Kennedy’s—breeds unity instead of discord, understanding instead of violence, strength instead of weakness. When we “make gentle the life of this world,” we draw upon the love that resides in our hearts to lift and help others. In doing so, we lift ourselves and strengthen our nation.

Kennedy knew this. He said, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country…”

The better angels of our nature

The many flags flown at half-staff are symbolic of the suffering our country feels right now. The pain is real. Something is not right. The economy is not working for everyone. There’s too much hatred and not enough love. We need to look deep within ourselves and consider what steps we need to take to help people who suffer.

A good friend recently made a comment that resonated with me. She said, “Hatred is loud, love is more powerful.” She’s right. Hatred may be loud, but it is weak in the face of great love.

As we close out the summer and march into fall, let’s look for ways to turn down the volume of hatred. It may be with a family member, a friend or a complete stranger. Let’s tap into the power of love to change lives and better direct our future. Let’s get those flags at full-staff again and keep them there.

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.