I have been thinking a lot about polls that have consistently reflected that Americans trust Dr. Anthony Fauci, by a factor of 2-1, more than our President when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. That's right, TWO to ONE. I have two thoughts that occur to me in thinking about that astonishing gap in trust (that's right, not expertise, where you would think Fauci would dominate, but trust). My more cynical first thought is "who in the heck trusts this President (or for that matter, many presidents) more than Fauci on coronavirus matters?"
But it is the second thought that is the topic of this post. Instead, I want to focus on the reason that an unassuming, slight-of-build, close to an octogenerian doctor has been so embraced by so many--- and I think it so easy to see. It is his character. More than his intelligence, his medical degree, his judgment, his position, or his hard-earned, worldwide renown as a premier infectious disease doctor-- his innate character.
I have always thought the expression, "Well, that was a character building experience" to be both peculiar and terribly misplaced. It makes it sound like our character can be baked into our persona by following a recipe, or that it can be acquired over time through a series of bad experiences. I don't think so--in fact, I tend to think the opposite. Getting called out for being a bully, or cheating on taxes, or betraying a friend doesn't necessarily, or even usually, make the bully, cheat or betrayer into a more virtuous person. It often just makes them more careful, more devious, stealthier. The 19th century American novelist James Lane Allen famously said that "Adversity doesn't build character; it reveals it." And I think that about sums it up.
Someone who claims that their character was built through experience may well be confusing personal maturation and development with character. Experience is in fact a great teacher--it teaches us how to think, how to assess and mitigate risk, how to solve complex issues, or how to resolve potential conflict. But even evil or sadistic people can learn from experience. Folks do not always learn the right lessons from their experiences. Not all personal development leads in a good direction. Character, on the other hand, comes from a more ancient, mysterious source.
Here is my short, non-exclusive list of people with great character (in addition to Dr. Fauci) -- Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, John McCain, Martin Luther King, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Arthur Ashe. Do you honestly think any of them became who they were because they had an early, "character building" experience? Was there anything that could have prepared Lincoln for the Civil War, Martin Luther King for Sheriff "Bull" Conner and the March on Selma, or Nelson Mandela for 27 plus years of solitary confinement? Yet they all were steadfast in the face of adversity, solitary bulwarks against tyranny, racism, fascism or colonial occupation. Many of them were scorned, ridiculed, beaten, or imprisoned, and none of them knew at the time that the cause for which they were fighting would be embraced by others. Lincoln arrived in Washington D.C. in an armored Pullman car because of the fear he would be assassinated before he even took office. Mandela was viewed as a terrorist in his own country. Churchill was a social and political outcast in England before his ascension to prime minister. Arthur Ashe was banned from playing white opponents in his home city of Richmond until 1966, and once described his position as being the only minority entrant among 128 players at the U.S. Open as being akin to being "a solitary raisin in a bowl of rice pudding."
So why do I name these particular individuals as being persons of great character? Because they possessed the following traits:
Integrity--they did not take shortcuts, they did not prevaricate, they did not compromise core values
Mental courage-- They knew the challenges ahead and they plowed forward anyway, with the outcome uncertain but with the sacrifices that would be necessary in full sight
Humility-- Wait, you say. Churchill was humble? Well, not in the sense of being self-effacing, but in the sense that he, and the others on my list, recognized, no make that embraced, that the cause for which they were fighting was significantly more important than personal accolades or enrichment.
Perseverance-- They kept their eyes on the prize, and they recognized that the prize would not be easily captured--indeed it would usually require sacrifice and many times the acceptance of pain.
The ability to forgive-- think of Mandela, who looked to unite South Africa after being imprisoned by his own country for over a quarter century, or John McCain's reconciliation trip to Vietnam after years of torture and solitary confinement.
We live in a time where character is required. We have too much evidence in too many places that a lack of character leads to a bad place. But we don't have to be a POW, or a leader in a civil war, or a victim of apartheid, to exhibit our character. Reject bigotry. Comfort the lonely. Oppose intolerance. But most importantly (to quote a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless)) "live the values that you profess, be the person that you want to be." That is the root of character. No difference between our interior beliefs and what we reveal to the world.
And isn't that, in the end, what we most admire about Dr. Fauci. His quiet leadership, his humility, his integrity, his perseverance. His character. And if you don't believe character matters to people, just check the polls.