I Like Ike

“ A Man’s wisdom gives him patience; it his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov 19:11).

Do you see a man skilled in his work?  He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men” (Proverbs 22:29).

In just a few days, we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of D-Day. In this post, I am honoring the soldier who led the invasion of Europe.

Along the journey of life, we all need a few heroes. I was born in 1951, just before Dwight David Eisenhower became President. I remember 1956 and “I Like Ike” buttons. His smiling, confident face was the face of America during my childhood. A few years ago, I decided to read a bit about people who made the 20th Century what it was for better or for worse. Winston Churchill was probably the “Man of the Century” since he was an important figure in World War I, World War II, and in the postwar period. He was a politician, leader, writer, historian, painter, and general Renaissance Man. His biography is worth reading.

My personal favorite, however, is Ike. Ike was born in Texas but grew up in Kansas. He embodied those virtues we connect with small-town America. He was hard-working, straightforward (unless he was bluffing in poker, politics, or war), and one of the greatest managers who ever lived. Military historians and theorists argue about his generalship. I only note that he was the leader of the greatest successful amphibious invasion in history. He led the greatest army of our history in the successful defeat of one of the most evil regimes in human history—Nazi Germany. The decision to launch D-Day was one of the most difficult decisions of World War II or any war before or since. Whatever his critics say, Ike’s deeds speak for themselves.

While at West Point, Ike injured his knee. It was disappointing. He could not play football or baseball as a result. During World War I, he never made it to Europe. He was too useful in training soldiers for combat. After the war, he spent many years as a staff officer, including difficult years as the Chief of Staff for Douglas MacArthur. He once noted that he spent a lot of time “Studying acting under MacArthur,” who was a difficult boss.

By the late 1930’s, Eisenhower was convinced he would retire as a forgotten Lt. Colonel. He never retired. Generals of the Army are on permanent active duty. (It is little known that, after he retired as President, he gave up his presidential retirement and was reinstated in his military rank. He was buried in a simple military uniform with his insignia of rank. Although he reached the highest office of the land, he thought of himself as a soldier who became President. )

IkeAs interesting as his military career is, this post is about his character. Why was Ike, out of all the generals of World War II, elected President? What made him different?

First, there is that button, “I Like Ike.” Eisenhower was likable. People liked him because he liked people. While he was a soldier, his home was often called “Club Eisenhower.” He was popular, affable, and friendly.

Second, Eisenhower had natural grace. Unlike Patton and MacArthur, who grew up sophisticated and privileged, Ike was from a humble, almost poor background. Nevertheless, he was a gentleman. He never lost the common touch.

Third, he worked hard. His capacity for work was legendary before and after World War II. As President, he often hid behind an image of an almost out-of-touch grandfather. Those who served under him knew differently. He was a master at hiding his true influence. (A habit some contemporary politicians might emulate.)  He was a wonderful manager of people, situations, armies, and institutions.

Fourth, he was a shrewd judge of people and situations. He was a great poker player, so good that he gave it up at times when it would have hurt his career. Many of the people he worked with were difficult, and some were more powerful than he was. Nevertheless, he prevailed because of his ability to read people and situations.

Finally, he never let his ego get in the way of what was best for the group. Patton, Montgomery, and other soldiers were sometimes disrespectful and tried his patience, but he never let his personal irritation interfere with what was best for the nation. He was a master of self-control.

Ike was not perfect. His temper was legendary. As a soldier, he sometimes sought solutions to international problems that today we would regard as flawed. None of that matters as far as his character is concerned. He was a great human being and a great American—a hero worth emulating.

Some years ago, I ran across two magazine covers. On the cover of one was Ike in his military uniform at the end of the war. On the other cover was the picture of one of the then most powerful people in America. Ike’s face was that of a man who worked hard, dared the odds, faced adversity, and succeeded after a life of preparation, work and adversity. His was the face of a man. The other was the face of a common politician whose fundamental character was even then suspect. Both men served as Presidents of the United States. Only one was the face of a person of deep and abiding character. Not a perfect man, but one to be trusted and emulated. That is why I like Ike.

What do Wisdom and Golf Have in Common?

I am a bad golfer. This is not surprising, since I seldom play golf and never practice. While I was in High School, my brother and I played golf just often enough to learn the basics of the game. I never played in college. Since college, I have only played occasionally in tournaments for various charities or church events. Even my closest friends do not like to play with me because I am terrible. My failures as a golfer are all traceable to a series of defects: I don’t regularly think about golf, learn about golf, practice golf, or play golf.

Golf is a skill, not a science. A person has to play golf to be good at golf. A person has to play with a variety of other people, watching how they play the game and learning from them. A person has to practice driving at a driving range. Most of us need lessons from someone who has played longer and is better than we are. We call these people “Golf Pro’s.” They are really good, so good that they can make a living playing and teaching people to play golf. When you do take a lesson with a Golf Pro, you don’t go into a classroom. You go onto a golf course or a driving range.

Life is a lot more complicated than golf. Therefore, it should not surprise us that the primary way Americans train young people to face the challenges of life—sending children to school—does not work well. Going to school gives a person mental skills and head knowledge. It does not teach a person how to play the game of life successfully. In order to learn to live successfully, we need to be mentored by someone who has lived life successfully. Ideally, that person would be a parent, grandparent, or other person who loves us deeply and is willing to put up with our foolishness and failures until we can take care of ourselves.

TwoBoys-golfChildren, especially, need more than teachers. They need “Life Pro’s.” Along the journey of life, we all need to be mentored by “Life Pro’s” from time to time. We need to play the game of life for a time with someone who has played longer than we have played, is a better player, and can show us how to play the fame of life successfully.

We all need mentors: in business, in family, in child-raising, in saving for retirement, and in every other area of life. Trial and error, as important as it can be from time to time, is not a good way to learn how to live. The problem with trial and error is that there are a lot of errors we can make. Some of them ruin our lives for a long time or even forever. A person who repeats every foolish behavior of human history in order to learn how to live will almost certainly never attain a happy life.

Just to give two examples: it takes the average woman five years to recover from a bad marriage and divorce—if they do recover at all. Assuming there were a few unhappy years before the divorce and for a period of time after the divorce life is hard,  the average divorcee will suffer over ten percent of her life just as a result of a bad marriage. Better to have avoided the entire experience.

In our church, we have ministered to more than one young person who ended up psychologically damaged as a result of a bad drug trip. Better to avoid mind-altering drugs altogether. (I try to avoid politics, but this casts grave doubt upon with wisdom shown by those states that are legalizing such drugs.)

Wisdom literature and the historic manner in which  most children were raised until the modern era were based upon this  insight: Children need to be mentored by prior generations so that they do not repeat the foolish life damaging, happiness destroying mistakes past generations learned to avoid.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Respecting the Ancient Paths

Thus says the Lord: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it’” (Jeremiah 6:16).

Hear, my son, and accept my words, that the years of your life may be many. I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness. When you walk, your step will not be hampered, and if you run, you will not stumble (Proverbs 4:10-12).

Recently, the American Secretary of State got into trouble on a trip to Africa with the following comment, “This is a time here in Africa where there are a number of different cross-currents of modernity that are coming together to make things even more challenging. Some people believe that people ought to be able to only do what they say they ought to do, or to believe what they say they ought to believe, or live by their interpretation of something that was written down a thousand plus, two thousand years ago. That’s not the way I think most people want to live.” In these words, Kerry reflects both the strengths and the weakness of modernity and its prejudice against traditional societies and beliefs. I think he did this unconsciously; and as a Catholic Christian, I think he probably did so without any intention to denigrate Christian faith.

The modern world began with the Protestant rejection of Church tradition as a source of religious truth separate from Holy Scripture. It was not ling before the suspicion of modernity was turned upon Scripture itself. By the dawn of our post-modern era, the critical fervor of modernity had been turned towards every source of authority. Among moderns and post-moderns traditional wisdom is used only to support what we choose to believe on other grounds, including personal inclination. The results have been chaos.

On the other hand, a mindless traditionalism can lead to a rejection of reason and of the entire notion of progress. A mindless tradition rejects any attempt to move beyond a current cultural, moral or religious state. Can a life be crafted that finds a moderate spot between these two extreme positions? I think the answer is “Yes.”

Traditional wisdom does not necessarily mean “traditional prejudice.” It can and most of the time does mean, “Respect for the accumulated experience of the human race.” This kind of respect is not a dead respect, never questioning, never asking questions of context or proper adaptation. It is a respectful listening for those who have gone before. It means seeing ourselves as having inherited a tradition, a culture, and a moral tradition that we both live within and adapt to our environment. It means understanding that those who went before us faced many of the same problems we face, and we do not have to repeat their mistakes.

imagesThere is a line in the movie Groundhog Day that sticks in my memory as an illustration of the importance of traditional wisdom. Having discovered that he relives Ground Hog Day over and over again, Phil decides to take a drunken drive on railroad tracks, saying “It’s the same thing every day, Clean up your room, stand up straight, pick up your feet, take it like a man, be nice to your sister, don’t mix beer and wine ever, Oh yeah, don’t drive on the railroad tracks.” As he swerves onto the tracks, one of his drunken companions says, “Phil, that’s one I happen to agree with.” Modern people want to follow only the rules that they happen to agree with at the moment. Unfortunately, the moral universe does not work that way with the result that the modern and post-modern people are often trapped in perpetual adolescence.

Our only escape is to recover a respect for the old paths. Interestingly, when we do recover this respect, we find  a new, richer, creativity and life than we could every have discovered if we had remained trapped in perpetually relearning lessons a thousand generations of human experience have already validated.