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Through his whole adult life Coles has made time to volunteer, often teaching literacy skills in inner-city schools. His parents were volunteers: they believed morality should be acted out in community service. The first time their son volunteered, he went half-heartedly. It was in a Catholic Worker community, and one day he complained to the director about how he felt like a hypocrite. She replied with a shot at ego. “Pride has us think ourselves to be especially wicked sometimes,” she said, “when really we’re just trying to get from one day to the other, and of course we stumble every now and then.” Coles was furious, walked out, and didn’t return for a month. It took that long to realize how proud he had been.

Surrounded by Southern politicians inspiring people to hate and fear, he began to consider the meaning and value of moral leadership. Moral leaders don’t just talk a good game, but behave in a way that is morally sound, too. And they have the power to bring people to them, joining together to do what is right and just and humane. A lack of moral leadership, Coles believes, undermines the potential for genuine happiness in families, communities, and society. When moral leadership is exerted, it creates positive energy even in unexpected places. “This is what I saw when Ruby was struggling to get into her school,” he says. “She became, in a way, the leader of her people. The circumstances prompted other people to begin to ask questions, including some of the hecklers. A few of them began to feel much more on Ruby’s side than they ever thought they would.” He considers this for a moment, and accepts it as a maxim: “Sometimes people get caught up in life and they’re given second thoughts. Those second thoughts can be extremely important moral ones.”

Moral leadership can occur, Coles says, not just in extraordinary situations, but in day-to-day life. “In our everyday life, in those small moments that become large moments, we do touch one another,” he says. “We give examples to one another, and maybe help one another figure out what we believe in. In ordinary circumstances people will ask things about life, and other people respond, and there’s a chain reaction of a very nice kind. I saw a moment in a store a couple years ago where a person was trying to steal something. Someone said to him, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Instead of calling the police or calling the man names, he asked that question—and it stopped the thief in his tracks. The would-be thief looked and said, ‘I don’t know.’ And the man said, ‘That’s the question of the day for you. What does this mean to you that you have to do that? What is it going to do to you to do it? Don’t you think it’s going to affect you in a way that makes it not so worthwhile to do it?’

“The man, I think, was stunned by that kind of response. It was an interesting moment and it culminated in the man walking away with slumped shoulders, and the man who had posed that question saying, ‘Think about all this.’”

For Coles, then, morality is supremely democratic. It involves everyone; we all have a part to play.

Asked to name the great moral leaders of his time, Coles selects Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Both men strove to see clearly, cared deeply about ordinary people, and had a vision to lessen suffering and improve life for all. In Lives of Moral Leadership Coles recalls Kennedy telling him that upper- and middle-class people who become frustrated with the state of the world need to face up to their “privileged innocence and, with it, perhaps, an unwitting self-importance.” In the middle of complicated political struggles, Kennedy told him, the point was to “best figure out a moral, not a pyrrhic victory.” To do this, Kennedy said, we need to be aware, keep our eyes open, expect long, difficult struggles, and not stop working for positive change.

Morality is fostered—or undermined—not just at home but on a national scale. In countries of every political stripe, Coles contends in The Political Lives of Children, the nation’s politics “becomes a child’s everyday psychology.” Hatred and ignorance are passed on by example and osmosis. So are wisdom and goodness.

Coles is now working on a new project, talking with American children born to people with AIDS, trying to understand how these children are affected by the illness. He has come full circle: his earliest research, back in the fifties, was talking to children with polio. Understanding how children are affected by illness, he says, is still lacking. Fifty years into his career, Coles continues to work for children. “I’m interested in moral matters not because I’m trying to explore intellectual or philosophical matters, so much as responding as a physician to the children I’ve gotten to know,” he says. “I’m trying to do justice to what I’ve heard from them.”

The last century is often cited for being bloody; this new century is off to a nervous start. Coles sees plenty of reasons for concern: moral lapses occur everywhere, from the smallest neighborhood to the world political scene. Power is being abused and mistakes repeated; human life continues to be flush with unnecessary suffering. Yet he remains optimistic. Partly this is based in responsibility—he knows that people who give up faith in the future lose the energy to fight the good fight. Yet his optimism is based, too, in the many experiences of his long life.

“I think it’s our obligation to be hopeful for the future, and that we hand on a better world for our children. Gloom of a persistent kind, which denies the possibility of hopefulness, is a very melancholy thing for all of us,” he says. “I am hopeful because I’ve seen so much change. Look what I’ve lived through: segregation in the American South, and the poor denounced and ostracized and denied their human rights even in a rich country like America. Having lived to see those changes, one believes that, by golly, more changes can come about.

“Just think of what the world has been through. People like Hitler and Stalin, thank God, are no longer with us. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t always some evil, but I think we’ve overcome a lot of evil and can continue to do so. People now know more about one another, from television and other ways. We’re more intimately connected with other people in the world, and that can be the basis of a better world.

“Of course,” he concludes, “that has to be followed by a political response and a moral response to the intimacy. Otherwise, it becomes an intimacy that has no consequences for us.”

David Swick teaches journalism ethics at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Robert Coles and the Moral Life, David Swick, Shambhala Sun, January 2006.


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