This declared indifference, but, as I must think, real, covert zeal, for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world, enables the enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as hypocrites, causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty, criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.
Abraham Lincoln’s Reply to Senator Douglas at Peoria, Illinois, 1854.
Everyone has the ability to influence others. The size and scope of one’s influence does, of course, vary greatly, but the fact remains that all of us have the power to influence those around us.
Lincoln saw it as his moral responsibility to try to influence others to embrace freedom and justice for all and end slavery. He knew that influence itself could be used to effect change for good or evil and did his best to use his influence for good. When Lincoln shared these thoughts in 1854 he did not hold a political office and that would be the case until he was sworn in as president in 1861 (he lost bids for the Senate in 1855 and 1858). He could have allowed his lack of political position to silence his voice, but fortunately for all of us, he used what influence he had to shape policy from afar and put himself in position to be nominated as the Republican candidate for president in 1860.
Systems and Influence
In this age of celebrity and social media, it is easy to become enamored with the individual. Entertainers, athletes, politicians, and other dominant personalities take center stage and we can be quick to forget how interrelated the world is. If we are not one of the few who have developed a large following, we may feel powerless, as if we have no influence on the world around us.
In the 1940s, mathematicians, physicists, engineers, and scientists developed a theory that recognized the world was made up of complex systems, not isolated individuals. Systems theory has since become foundational to work that cuts across disciplines including psychology, cybernetics, biology, sociology, and engineering.
One of the assumptions of systems theory is that all members of a system influence one another. When we look at humanity as a huge interrelated system with billions of members, this means that even the youngest, oldest, and quietest people influence those around them. Babies compel their parents to action with a cry. A child redirects classroom conversation with the raising of a hand. The artist alters a gallery’s perspective with a splash of color. The politician sways public opinion with words spoken from a lectern. If you weren’t aware that you influence others, it is worthwhile to ask yourself what kind of impact you are having on the people around you.
Our values play a significant role in determining what kind of influence we have on the world. If we think highly of hard work, we will do our best in all things while exhorting others to do the same. If we appreciate beauty, we will likely lift the spirits of our friends with paint, clay, poetry, or song. If we do to others as we would have them do to us, we cause love to grow in the hearts of not just our neighbors but also our enemies. When we value love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we influence others for good. When we live a life of love, we cast light in the darkest parts of our home, neighborhood, city, and world.
This November, many of us in the United States will influence the outcome of the presidential election. It is difficult to grasp, but history teaches us that every vote is important. I admit it has been discouraging at times to see how candidates treat one another and to hear the vitriolic din of some of the electorate. Still, I am grateful to live in a country where freedom of speech lifts the voices of its people and democracy allows the individual to influence the direction of the nation.