12/13/2013 05:36 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

The Liberating Power of the Positive

When ending his 27 years of imprisonment, the late Nelson Mandela observed: "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison." The same is true with fear. This past year has provided a number of opportunities for us the reflect on what David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy has dubbed a "decade of fear" that has driven us to grotesquely disproportionate manifestations, including a threats-based national security and intelligence complex, a national culture of risk aversion and a cult of hero-worship of the military, fostering an unhealthy, elitist and antidemocratic civil-military relationship.

I share Rothkopf's hope and observation that:

We have come to what could be seen as the end of an ignominious period in U.S. national security history, one that might be called the Decade of Fear. And though it was the 9/11 attacks that ushered this period in, our response in the months and years afterward defined it far more than those blows ever could. At a moment when the United States could have seen the terrorist threat as being as limited and peripheral, we over-reacted -- grotesquely. We didn't react to the moment. We didn't seize it. We succumbed to it.

As I pointed out early this past year, George Carlin was right about our obsessive compulsion with terrorism: We've blown this all out of proportion. The chances of the average American being killed by a terrorist are "practically zero." We murder nearly three times as many of our own people each year than we lost on 9/11, and yet we silently accept the continued compromise of our liberties in the Patriot Act and the perpetuation of a national security state beyond even Cold War proportions. So, if we're willing to "take a f***ing chance" with mentally deranged gun toters in our own front yards, then why not with equally deranged foreign terrorists a few time zones away?

Then there have been near weekly revelations of the National Security Agency's gigantic information-gathering and collection matrix, that may hopefully be sparking a much-needed national debate on how much we should value security over freedom.

If, after all, we want to end the state of perpetual war that Sun Tzu and James Madison would have easily called our greatest long-term existential threat, we need to learn to question the language we use to justify it.

When "national security" is the dominant narrative, the über alles that ends debate and makes everything else nice-to-do, and when a government, in a blanket sense, views its citizens as potential or suspected criminals or enemies of the state, putting it in a perpetual state of conflict with its own people, then the United States can then hardly hold claim to being the world champion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Especially since 9/11, those who have hated us have not as much, because they hate what we say we stand for. They hate us more because we don't stand for it. Or make ourselves the exception to the rules we invented but expect everyone else to follow.

When we erode the liberties and compromise the values that underwrite our national strength through overprotection, then the terrorists have won. And we helped them.

The problem with succumbing to all this pervasive negativism is that it generates an unwillingness to change, to step outside our comfort zones and reach out to the other side, whether in simply getting a federal government that stands most in the way of national success, or working with countries like Iran and Russia to find balance and stability in a region that's troubled us through the last eight presidencies. It's playing not to lose. And playing not to lose is a losing strategy.

Rather than trying to cover weaknesses, as a nation, we should be playing our strengths. Among these is an integrated immigration and assimilation culture centered around the simple, yet sophisticated principle of e pluribus unum -- a societal software that the Chinese can neither pirate nor hack into. It makes us the world's greatest engine of innovation and connectivity. This moral foundation of who we are is the great source of our strength and national power abroad as well as at home.

The example of heroic figures that have graced our collective consciousness this past year, from Pope Francis to John F. Kennedy, to Nelson Mandela and others, is that they have not only been showing us how to keep the big picture and the long run in mind while living in the moment -- thinking globally and acting locally. They have been showing us the supreme importance of operating from the positive, as well as of the moral over the physical.

The world is complex and difficult to decipher, and it is getting more so. This is even more reason for a moral compass. No idea or value has validity if it isn't lived. When you lose your moral credibility, you lose the right to lead. And since I was a lieutenant, the best way I know how to lead is by example.

As all of these people of past and present history remind us, it all starts with living your values. Value-basing is essential to applied personal, organizational, or national strategy, a process of making choices about the future. Values shape interests, which in turn inform strategy and policy, and then the actions of those executing those policies -- within as well as beyond our shores. That's the connection between what we say and what we do as a nation.

The other lesson they have for us going forward is to practice greater humility. Humility is an act of strength, not a sign of weakness, because it reflects confidence in the future more than a fear enslaved by the past. Isn't that, after all, what America should be most about? And if humility was good enough for Jesus -- whose birth many of us are preparing to celebrate, and as this year's Person of the Year, is helping us to remember -- then shouldn't it also be good enough for us?

Kennedy's call to action, in turn, was a constant call to citizenship -- local, national, and global to embrace the promise of American reinvention and renewal. And by pointing out that the new frontiers we face are more moral than physical, more internal than external, he reminded us that the path to a more perfect union and a more peaceful world lies within ourselves. It's up to us now to decide whether more than Kennedy was killed that fateful day. That begins with each of us before it can be for all of us.

Last but not least, democratizing national service and sacrifice will do more than restore the civil-military relationship in America, and make sure the troops are socialized and not just idolized. A comprehensive ethos of national service also makes us better citizens of a better nation among nations, tempering our narcissist tendencies. While it makes us a better example to others in the world and helps restore our all-important moral credibility, it most importantly makes us better examples to ourselves.

Our behavior, big and small, should strive to reflect more what we're about than what we're afraid of. What these people have really been teaching us this past year is the liberating power of the positive. Freedom ultimately comes through aspiration not trepidation. As we close this year and begin a new one, perhaps we could pledge to ourselves and each other to think and act more from what we are for rather than against, looking ahead more than behind ourselves.

Or, as Mandela put it: "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

America cannot long remain the land of the free if it is no longer the home of the brave.