The Worst Thing is Not What You Think

By Terah Clifford

A highlight of the program so far was definitely our excursion into San Francisco to see Hamilton. After hearing about the show for so long, I was so excited to finally get to experience it. Although I need to relisten to the score a few times in order to fully appreciate the nuances and lyrics, there were a few lines that initially stood out to me. When Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson run against each other in the presidential election, Alexander Hamilton must decide who to endorse. He eventually decides to cast his vote with Jefferson, a man whose views and policies he does not agree with, declaring that “when all is said and all is done / Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.” Despite their ideological differences, Hamilton chooses in this moment to endorse a candidate whose views he did not agree with because he respected Jefferson’s passion and conviction. Hamilton’s decision to support the man who had a clear vision of where he wanted to take the new country made me begin to think about the wider implications of this statement. Leaders that are worth following have a clear direction for the future and a strong opinion of the past. While they may seek advice, they do not waste time equivocating, and they accept the consequences that come with controversial opinions in the service of what they perceive as the greater good. 

In a further criticism of Burr, Hamilton points out that “I’d rather be divisive than indecisive.” This line stood out to me on a very personal level. I have spent the last year as a student at UC Berkeley, a school that is very different from anything I have experienced before. I chose to jump headfirst into an entirely new environment where people had many opinions that I did not agree with because I wanted to learn about other perspectives. While my thinking has changed and expanded, there are still many things I see as non-negotiable within my own value system that do not align with the popular consensus. But more and more often, I find myself keeping quiet about those opinions. Many times, it’s just easier that way, especially when I don’t feel I have the energy to sustain a heated debate. Although I love open and honest conversations with people who have different viewpoints than I do, so few people want to talk and really listen to what someone else has to say. Instead, they want to convince you of their own opinions and most likely judge you for the ones you hold. My fear of being divisive leads me to appear indecisive or indifferent; the fear of judgment not only silences my words, but it often can have a paralyzing effect that keeps me from taking action. But as history shows, inaction or passivity often becomes a vehicle for harm. 

As I was reflecting on the importance of opinions and conviction and all these things were swirling in my head, a friend shared a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that encouraged me to step out and take action: “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” As terrifying as it can be, the fear of being divisive or controversial is not an adequate excuse for inaction. While this quote succinctly and effectively calls for action, if I could add anything to it, I would say that something even worse than inaction is failing to learn from our mistakes. With this in mind, I want to gain confidence in speaking out about what I believe and push myself to act, recognizing that I will make mistakes but accepting that is the only way to grow and positively influence the future.