I had really hoped not to be writing this on New Year's Day but the continuing insanity in Washington has made that impossible. Despite President Obama and the Senate's best efforts to get a deal done to avert the fiscal cliff, House Republicans have rebuffed any chance of a compromise being achieved, and whatever happens in the next few hours and days, one thing is certain: 2013 will be a continuation of the mean-spirited politics of 2012.
Over the last few days, as our country has lurched increasingly closer to economic insanity, I have come to realize that America has truly lost its way. While it may be easy to criticize Washington for our mess, the reality runs much deeper than that and the blame rests on all our shoulders, for what America is lacking today is something fundamental: heart.
But what is heart anyway? To answer that, I went back to watch a movie that literally defines the concept: Rocky III.
Rocky Balboa is an iconic character who represents all that America can and should be. He is a personification of not just the American dream but the American ideal, and in revisiting him, I was reminded of all that makes this country great, and also all that we have lost along the way.
Rocky is the ultimate self-made man, a fighter who does not ask for anything but the chance to work towards his goals. In the movie, even his luck at being chosen to fight the world heavyweight champion comes with a dark twist -- he is just window dressing to make Apollo Creed look even better to his adoring fans. Beneath the golden opportunity that he is given lies a hidden contempt that the world holds for a "nobody" like him. People may applaud when the underdog wins, but secretly they are rooting for the glamorous heroes who carry with them the advantage of privilege.
Yet Rocky perseveres and goes the distance despite being outmatched by the more experienced Apollo, and in the process illustrates the power of individual determination, self-belief, and sheer hard work. But that is not the only point, for Rocky's saga also teaches us about the importance of humility, compassion, and character. Rocky may be a boxer but he is also a generous soul, a romantic, a concerned friend, a conscientious citizen, and a firm believer in doing the right thing.
In a wonderfully poignant scene, he persists in giving well-meaning advice to a teenage girl even though he gets nothing but sarcasm and insults in return. As he walks away, a little hurt and bewildered but not bitter, both the irony and magnificence of Rocky's nobility become apparent. He is a man whose good deeds seldom go unpunished but one who still soldiers on and keeps fighting and caring. In success and in failure, in hope and in hopelessness, Rocky's spirit and generosity remain undaunted. That is what makes him an icon and qualifies him to show us the way forward in our own lives and as a nation.
This past year has been one of deep divisions in America, both political and ideological, and we seem to have forgotten the very principles that unite us as one people. We live in a time when half the country is so focused on individual success that it has forgotten all about community, in a time when extreme inequality is viewed as an acceptable byproduct of capitalism, in a time when the most successful Americans want to pay lower taxes even though the infrastructure of their nation is crumbling, in a time when aid for the poor and elderly is viewed as an entitlement rather than a moral imperative, in a time when even the mention of workers' rights or fair wages are considered socialism, and in a time of heartless indifference to the common good. The election cycle and now the fiscal cliff debate have exposed the vast chasm between those who want more for the nation and those who simply want more for themselves -- whatever the cost to others -- with frightening clarity, and even a reasonable balance on these things seems to be unattainable.
Another issue that has polarized us recently is that of gun control, where once again, many Americans have shown their unwillingness to put humanity in front of ideology and, in some cases, profit. Instead of responding to the horrific shooting in Newtown with moral outrage and patriotic responsibility, the NRA, the gun industry and gun rights advocates have fired back with either cowardly silence or deliberately tone-deaf defenses of their position on gun control. Instead of acknowledging the need for change and extending their cooperation to society to fix the problem of gun violence, these parties have instead closed ranks to protect their personal interests, wrapped themselves in the flag of false Americana, and demonstrated an appalling lack of concern for the safety of their fellow citizens.
What all this translates into is a nation with plenty of brains but no heart and a nation marching into the future like a soulless machine rather than as a brave torch bearer of magnificent principles.
This is not the America that I migrated to and it is certainly not the America that I would like to see in the future. The America of old was different. It was still a haven of freedom and a land of individual enterprise (and by no means perfect) but it was also a land of empathy and charity, where Americans from all walks gathered around the common cause of a higher purpose, regardless of personal cost. In other words, it was a nation of patriots who worked hard not only for themselves but also for the sake of their country. It was also an America with a real moral compass that was based on high ideals rather than extremist beliefs. That was an America with both brains and heart, and with the essence of Rocky.
So where is that America now, and how can we find it again?
The answer lies within. The only chance we have of reconnecting with all that makes us great is for us to honestly reflect on what we have become and what we should be instead. It requires us to repudiate selfishness and to abandon the shortsighted beliefs that isolate us from our neighbors and render us islands living only for ourselves and our own needs. Obviously this principle applies to everyone: to conservatives and liberals, to whites and minorities, and also to the rich and the poor; for only when we all recognize that none of us are purely self-made, that none of us are omniscient, that personal achievement without heart is ultimately empty, that happiness attained by abandoning responsibility towards others is false, and that individual prosperity that comes through exploitation is never right, will we succeed in reconnecting with our true potential.
The uniqueness of Rocky is that he was a winner without trying to be one. His desire was not to win at all costs but to prove his mettle to himself -- regardless of the outcome, and to impart love, understanding, and generosity to those around him. It is this blend of grit, humility, empathy, and nobility that elevates the character above the ordinary and gives us an idol for the ages, and it is also these qualities that we need to emulate today.
Can you imagine Rocky Balboa proclaiming that "greed is good"? Neither can I, and as we enter 2013 and contemplate the challenges and opportunities in front of us, we would all be wise to search for the Rocky within us, and help America find its heart again.
SANJAY SANGHOEE has worked at leading investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein as well as at a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is the author of two financial thrillers, including "Merger" which Chicago Tribune called "Timely, Gripping, and Original". Please visit his Facebook page for more information.