President Carter’s first great lesson in personal resilience

President Jimmy Carter has received a dire cancer diagnosis, one that he is facing with a sense of peace, grace, and courage that I find remarkable. The New York Times reports how he greeted news that cancer had spread to his brain:

“But I was surprisingly at ease,” Mr. Carter added. “I’ve had a wonderful life, I’ve had thousands of friends, and I’ve had an exciting and adventurous and gratifying existence.”

As President Carter’s health and treatment now play out before us, perhaps we should keep in mind why, at age 90, he has remained so visibly in the public eye. Since leaving the White House in 1981, he has built an extraordinary body of peacekeeping and humanitarian work, mostly through the non-profit Carter Center that he and his wife Rosalynn established.

Elected President

Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was elected President in 1976. His path to the White House was an unconventional one. A one-term Governor of Georgia, he ran an outsider, reform-minded campaign that resonated with voters in the wake of the Watergate scandal that had led to Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Carter’s term in office, however, was a rocky one, characterized by a difficult economy on the domestic side and growing tensions in the Middle East, the latter culminating in the Iranian hostage crisis that consumed the last year of his presidency. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination and beat Carter in a November election that also swept away dozens of leading liberal Democrats from the House and Senate. It was a watershed election that marked the revival of American conservatism.

Post-Presidency

For Carter, the 1980 vote was a humiliating public repudiation, a rare loss for an incumbent President. He instantly became a pariah within the Democratic Party and would be largely ignored during many succeeding party conventions.

But Carter, 56 years old when he left office, would not abandon his commitment to public affairs. A deeply religious and self-reflective man, he spent the immediate aftermath of his electoral loss contemplating his future. In 1982, he and Rosalynn would create the Carter Center, locating it in Atlanta and affiliating with Emory University. Here is how the current Carter Center brochure describes its work:

Founded in 1982 by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, The Carter Center advances peace and health worldwide. A nongovernmental organization, the Center has helped to improve life for people in more than 70 countries by resolving conflicts; advancing democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity; preventing diseases; improving mental health care; and teaching farmers to increase crop production.

Though slightly dated, historian Douglas Brinkley’s The Unfinished Presidency (1998) best tells the tale of how Jimmy Carter rebounded from his devastating 1980 defeat. It is a story of recovery (personal and professional), resilience in the face of rejection and adversity, and ultimate renewal.

President Carter’s battle with cancer may well have more lessons to teach us. But we can also draw considerable insight and inspiration from how he recovered and renewed his life after that terrible defeat in 1980.

***

Personal resilience is a theme running throughout this article, and I know that many readers find this blog because of their own trials at work and career setbacks. The American Psychological Association has put together a resource page, The Road to Resilience, that some will find helpful. 

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