When I was young, my mother made embroideries with inspirational messages for my brother and me to hang above our beds. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” read my brother’s plaque, while mine simply said “nobody’s perfect.” Mirroring our different temperaments, the messages were both uplifting and grounding at the same time. My embroidery was a picture of three owls sitting on a tree branch, with one hanging upside down. Garrison Keillor would have a field day with them in the Lutheran world of Lake Wobegon. It was a message of strength and humility I needed to hear.
This week it is US President Obama who seems to be the “odd man out” with his “crusade controversy” at the national prayer breakfast. So it seems fitting to share a lesson that has preoccupied me since childhood. Even if you feel you know the truth and are right to say or do something, sometimes it is better to refrain judgement until you are sure. The reasons for circumspection are various. Sometimes it’s not the right timing and sometimes you are just wrong or out of context. I think that both were the case in Obama’s ill-informed statements.
Errors in judgement are human and with everyone watching every word of the President, all of the time, there’s little margin for error. President Obama shouldn’t have used the national prayer breakfast to draw an unjust moral equivalency between past and present wrongdoings. It would have been sufficient to re-emphasize that America is not at war with Islam. Too often, critics have accused President Obama of “lecturing” instead of leading. This time they are unfortunately right. Not only is it detrimental to his integrity as President, the poor timing undermines what is ostensibly a meeting of the minds around the world that the current and ongoing brutality by religious extremism is singularly and absolutely wrong.
While I sometimes applaud the President for his good intentions, I am now reminded of the proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and of its biblical reference in Matthew 7:13
Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter through it.
Sometimes it is harder *not* to say something than it is to say it. And many are those in the era of social media who are quick to spout off in public when a more quiet forum of reflection is called for. Too often our ego leads us to say things we later do (or should) regret. By making a broad brushed historical comparison, President Obama missed the mark. His speechwriters should have known better.
But, again, as my mother would say: “nobody’s perfect.” All we can do is learn from our experience and move forward with humility and commitment to do better in the future. As much as the President likes to tackle hard issues head-on, he should also follow the advice in the iconic 20th century prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the Courage to change the things I can; and the Wisdom to know the difference.
In this case, the President should have left a millennium old discussion to the historians and used his wisdom and courage as President to focus on his current leadership duties.