Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam where fellow countryman killed 23,000 Americans in less than two days.
Up to this point, Lincoln’s decision-making motives in the war focused primarily on retaining the Union — fighting secessionists — not so much about the abolition of slavery. He didn’t want to be known as the president that let the Union slip away. In fact, Lincoln was afraid to confront slavery head-on, for fear of losing the support of the North-South border states that were non-committal about the issue of slavery.
But in his diary, you can see the stress of losing the war, combined with the death of another son (Willie, age 11), drive him into a more spiritual period of reflection. He starts to question the validity of his Union-saving motive. He realizes that the more fundamental and honorable motive is the abolition of slavery, that all men are created equal, and that saving the Union and his legacy as President are relatively insignificant by comparison.
Antietam’s bloodbath precipitated his courage. He decides to disregard his concern about the border states and, henceforth, all of his decisions about fighting the war will be motivated by the elimination of slavery, with the retention of the Union a distant second concern. He issues the Emancipation Proclamation immediately after Antietam.
Within a matter of weeks, the tide of the war turned in favor of the North. Nothing else in the environment changed except Lincoln’s motives and his courage to stand up in favor of the more fundamental and pure issue of freedom, even if it meant the loss of political support. It was as if God were watching, withholding support, until Lincoln addressed the more pure motive.
For me, reading and learning about Lincoln in this context and this turn of events in the war was a watershed moment in my life and made me realize the power of pure motives — those not driven by ego, greed, irrational fear, careerism, or vengeance, but rather by love, fundamental justice, charity, and compassion. For many years leading up to this, first as a young military officer and then in civilian professional life, I searched for a universal framework for decision making that I knew would result in the best outcome, the proper outcome. The Bible was the best framework I could find previously, but in diverse religious environments, leading diverse people, the Bible did not always provide the guidance I was searching for. Likewise, for me at least, the Bible is sometimes complicated and contradictory, compassionate and forgiving in the New Testament, harsh and unforgiving in the Old Testament.
When I witnessed in Lincoln’s own writing and speeches the slow spiritual emergence of his change in motives and the impact those new motives had on the outcome of the Civil War, it was the single most insightful moment of my life. It launched me down a path in which I now constantly check and explore my motives, as best human fallibility will allow, in hopes that all personal and professional decisions and behaviors are firmly rooted in universal truths, even if the short term outcome looks bleak.
This manner of thinking changed everything about my life, everything. All of my decisions improved in the near-term, and it relieved the long-term burden of retrospective regret, with the comforting knowledge that I did the best I could, my motives were as pure as possible, and that whatever followed was meant to be.
Of course, I do not mean to imply that I abide by and practice this philosophy completely, only that I try, and over the journey of life, hope for the practice to occupy a larger and larger part of my life. It’s worth noting that, given the fallibility of the human ego, and the complexity of human relations, finding the right and pure motive is not always an easy task. It might take days or weeks of background contemplation to finally arrive at, but once you find it, you will know. You will find a deep and calm sense of truth, and you will know.
When faced with a decision, a choice, no matter how small or insignificant, consider your motives and adjust them towards fundamental purity. The accumulation of small everyday choices guided in this fashion, seems to me, no less important than applying it in more singular and significant decisions. The effect, over time, will be cumulative, like compounding interest, and what you’ll be left with is a track record of doing right, no matter what occasionally goes wrong.
Dale Sanders also serves as VP of Healthcare Quality Catalyst