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The myth of private affairs

“People have a right to be supportive of someone who they find trust in and who they believe and want to follow,” reasoned contrite Auckland Mayor Len Brown on Campbell Live last week. “I clearly have a challenge within my family,” Brown continued, adding that “my challenges should not constrain or compromise the need for [the council] to move forward.”

But is this truly so? What has home to do with the office? This incredibly difficult time for Brown and his family has highlighted a deeper divide in society. The view that private life is entirely distinct from public life is a modern liberal idea called the public-private split, and while popular, it just doesn’t hold water. It is a legal and political fiction that ignores one basic fact about life. That is, that when it comes down to it, we humans (and politicians are people too, remember) are both habit-forming and habit-formed creatures, and habits— rather inconveniently—know no bounds.

Thoughts inevitably lead to actions, actions to habits, habits to character, and character to destiny, as the saying goes. Each time we lie—for a relevant example—we are forming a habit of lying, which in turn with other habits forms who we are, our character. If we lie often enough, our character becomes “untrustworthy.” We may not always lie, but each time we do, the wound deepens. 

Habits don’t give a stuff about whether they’re in the public or private realms, they have their way with us indiscriminately. Whether we like it or not, we become what we repeatedly do. Our character strengths and weaknesses tend to follow us from one area of life to the next, and no matter how hard we try, we do not simply transform into another person when we step into another room or position. To say that character weaknesses in one area of life are somehow quarantined from infecting others ignores reality.

We all fall short, and need to acknowledge, and reform, our weaknesses. This is especially so for our elected representatives—responsible and accountable to “the public” who elevated them to their special positions by trust-gilded votes. It’s particularly important that we “find trust in” and believe our leaders, so we can follow them with confidence. This special trust and responsibility comes with wielding public power, and in cases like this where a leader stumbles it can be a double-edged sword; one that slices through both public office and private lives.

So, to dismiss this simply as a “private affair” is to miss the point. Character transcends realms. Brown’s family, although deeply hurt, have admirably supported him through this challenging time. It remains to be seen whether the public will be anywhere near as forgiving, but in the meantime, we all have a challenge. That is, to live lives of integrity—a wholeness or unity of character—in all that we do, wherever we find ourselves.  

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