5 Lessons From the Life of Senator John McCain

How integrity, courage, and resilience are nurtured in young people.

Posted Aug 27, 2018

Source: DepositPhotos

John McCain, the iconic Republican Senator from Arizona, will be remembered and eulogized this week for many achievements. Whether people agreed with his politics or policies, there is little disagreement about the man himself. Most poignant are the memories of how leaders, family members, and everyday people reflect on the psychology of McCain as authentically human. He was a common man who lived through uncommon and challenging times.

Researchers in the field of developmental psychology consider strengths of character like integrity, courage, and resilience common human attributes that are fostered through relationships with teachers, parents, mentors, peers, colleagues, and role models. The process of self-awareness helps people examine and refine these qualities, particularly when they go through challenging life experiences.  

No one would disagree that John McCain made the best from the most difficult of life experiences. Tortured at the hands of his captors in the Vietnam War, he spent 5 ½ years as a prisoner before returning home and beginning a more than 30-year career in public service. What made McCain special was his resilience in the face of trauma and his keen ability to stand for his beliefs for a lifetime, despite personal or political consequences.  

Today, scientists understand more about trauma and the effects of abuse, violence, and neglect. Trauma hijacks the vagal circuits of the brain, often immobilizing its victims with fear. It causes feelings of anxiety, panic, abandonment, worthlessness, and other core emotional experiences. How John McCain overcame his trauma will never be fully known. But how he lived his life provides clues about what he learned about himself and how integrity, courage, and resilience are nurtured throughout generations.  

As a researcher in the field of positive youth development and youth civic engagement for the past decade, John McCain's life of service holds powerful lessons to me. They are not unlike the lessons conveyed by young civically-engaged Americans in Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation.

My research examined how young people overcame the challenges of civic engagement to become committed to social and environmental causes. According to participants, a life devoted to causes greater than oneself is fraught with conflict and turmoil. Isolated ideologies, gridlock, and blame, part of the current American political landscape, is disheartening to many. Research participants spoke from both sides of the political spectrum, yet their stories contained themes similar to McCain’s.

The following is a synthesis of lessons learned from the life of Senator McCain and from the stories of young research participants. They are reminders that everyone can be a mentor to youth, and that the human attributes that were finely tuned throughout John McCain’s life are within reach to all, especially those who believe they are attainable. 

Lesson 1: Everyone Makes Mistakes; Successful People Learn From Them

John McCain would be the first to admit that he was a common man with human frailties. In fact, when asked by Jake Tapper in a 2017 CNN interview about how he wished to be remembered, McCain stated, “He served his country. And not always right. Made a lot of mistakes. Made a lot of errors. But served his country…honorably.”

Research shows that initiative is nurtured in young people when they overcome obstacles and challenges, learn from mistakes, and weigh choices. Young research participants talked openly about the value of making mistakes. They were fortunate to have supportive adults in their lives who accepted imperfection and error, encouraging them to learn and grow.

Lesson 2:  Democracy Thrives on Collaboration and Flexible Thinking

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, shared a story of when she recently visited Senator McCain at his ranch in Arizona. They were looking at his book, Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir when McCain pointed to one of his favorite quotes: “Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.”

McCain understood the importance of collaboration and flexible thinking—of reaching across the aisle to achieve results that no one party or person could achieve by themselves. Civically-engaged youth understood this concept too—attributing their successes to working with people who had diverse ideas. In fact, young people said they were transformed by getting to know people who were different than themselves.

Lesson 3: Believing in Youth Can Change the World

Senator McCain valued diverse voices and experiences. He mentored young politicians from both parties and encouraged them to believe in themselves. When Kelly Ayotte, a young Republican Senator from New Hampshire lost her bid for re-election, she said McCain told her, “Whatever you go on to do, do the right thing.”

Some mentors tell young people what to do. McCain did not. Instead, he believed in young people’s ability to “do the right thing”—whatever they believed was right for them.

In speaking of her mentor, a young female research participant said, “He wouldn’t try to tell me what to do…He would instead just be thoughtful and quiet and then he would remind me who I was…he showed that he had faith in me and he knew that I would make a good choice.”

The engaged students in the study were fortunate to have mentors like Senator McCain. One of  the participants said it well, “I had to believe in myself before I could believe that I could change the world.”

Lesson 4: Academic Achievement Does Not Equal Life Success

John McCain thrived at being an underdog throughout his life. In a 2017 CNN interview, McCain talked about joy and well-being. “You’ve got to have joy,” he said. “Those joyful memories of the campaign in 2000 are some of the most enjoyable times of my life. We were underdogs. We were fighting our way up…. Everything was so magical. Remember I’m the guy who stood 5th from the bottom of his class in the Naval Academy!”

Civically-engaged youth also spoke of their service experiences as joyful and exciting, regardless of whether they were winners or losers. Those that were not high achievers in school found the same meaning and purpose in working with colleagues toward a common purpose as the straight-A students. Parents and mentors fostered young people’s success when they conveyed messages of encouragement rather than judgments about academic achievements.

Lesson 5: Relationships Are the Heart of a Thriving Nation

Hundreds of people with diverse political views have talked about their friendships with Senator John McCain. It is obvious that he valued these relationships and believed that democracy thrived because diverse people got to know and understand each other.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who retired from the Senate in 2013, spoke of the unlikely friendship between Senator McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham and himself, saying, “If you looked at our biographies, the three of us couldn’t be more different…. Yet there we were in the U.S. Senate together, and we became just the fastest of friends.”

In McCain’s book, Why Courage Matters, he states, “We were meant to love. And we were meant to have courage for it. So be brave. The rest is easy.”

Decades of research supports the notion that relationships are at the heart of human and societal success. Future generations will thrive through relationship-building just as generations have done before them. From those relationships and role models like John McCain, young people will gain resiliency in the face of tough challenges. They will develop the courage to stand up for their beliefs and convictions in a diverse and changing world.

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