Habits of the Heart, Again

Habits of heart.

I first heard those words in the mid-1980s. Robert Bellah and company brought into the late 20th-century the image of Alexis de Tocqueville, who is his classic study of America in the early 19th-century saw that there were “habits of heart” that would be required if the American experiment was to be sustained.

The words captured what I was already intrigued by, i.e. the challenge of keeping things alive over time. It is one thing to care about what matters; it is something altogether different to keep at it, to keep caring about what matters. That is as true of persons as it is of polities, of individuals as it is of nations.

I thought about all this again today as I gave the last lecture of the semester for the American Studies Program on Capitol Hill. No longer a member of the faculty as I was for many years, my role now is to lecture at the beginning and end of the semester—and I do so because of long love.

While we look at the grand ideas and issues of public life, sifted as they have been through the semester, the heart of my concern is that they think through the habits of heart that will be required if they are to sustain their commitments and passions over time. With focused attention it is relatively easy to get an “A” in school; what is much harder is finding ways into a life over life that continues to make sense of what seemed to matter most at age 21.

And that is why I pressed so hard today on habits of heart. What will it take for you to keep at this? To keep caring about what matters?

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