COLUMN: The Search for True Leaders at Christmas

There are two paths people can take when they suffer loss or terrible pain.

ByABC News
December 23, 2015, 12:41 PM

— -- "Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day. And then the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!" And thus the redemption story of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is resolved.

For many years growing up, I had always thought I was going to die young -- for some reason I had determined by the time I was 45 or so. I don't know where this came from, but it settled into my psyche and I became convinced it was going to happen. I was very ambitious in my life, always in a hurry, not consistently concerned about others' feelings (much more about my own), but wanting to be considered nice.

Then when I turned 45, I thought I had made it past the barrier of living, and determined the "dying young" story of my youth just wasn't true. Some years earlier, my mom was found dead on our Michigan's home living room floor. She had just gotten my younger brother out of the house -- who was the baby of us eleven (he had recently turned 18) -- and mom died of a heart attack quickly after the home was empty for the first time in 38 years. It shocked all of us, and turned my father's world upside down. None of us had dealt with death in this kind of close manner before.

It made me pause for a bit, but not long enough for me to rest in the moment and reflect on how I might make my life different. Then, not too many years later, my wife at the time and I tragically lost a daughter. She was an identical twin, and her sister, who is a beautiful young woman today, was in the hospital for nine months. This was followed by my oldest son enlisting in the Army and being sent on two dangerous tours in Iraq. And then not long after, my older brother called me up and said my younger sister was found dead in her apartment of an accidental drug overdose.

OK, now God, or the universe had my attention. Wow. It was now really the time to reflect and determine how I wanted to live my life. It took many years of contemplation, prayer, heartache, and trial and error, but I came out the other side.

I think there are two paths people can take when they suffer loss or terrible pain. One, your heart can get smaller, you can close off, you can get more cynical, become more self-focused, and treat others with less compassion. Or, two, you can get more hopeful and optimistic, more open, become less self-centered, become more loving, and your heart can grow bigger. Because of faith (and maybe some courage), I was able to take the latter path, and, like the Grinch, I like to believe my heart grew more in size in the aftermath of all that heartbreak.

I had many discoveries in that process, but one thing I realized was that for a long time I wanted to be a nice person, but I probably wasn't always kind. Recently, someone said to me I was a nice guy, and I replied "no I am not, I want to be kind." There is a huge difference between the two.

Being nice is about how we want to be perceived by others, it is about what we do to make others see us in a certain way. Being kind is an inherent rooted value about who we are, and how we convey that in the world. Being nice is an external disposition, and it is all about how the world sees us. Being kind is an internal disposition where one goes into the world in a loving manner because that is who you are. Nice is getting people to like us by what we do. Kind is who we are, and treating others in the way our hearts and souls naturally gravitate to if rooted in that deep value.

Though polite and gracious, I am not always a nice person. I sometimes say truths that upset others, or don't care what someone really thinks of me, if I know for myself who I really am and what I want to do based on my rooted values and being. It is OK for folks to say I am not nice, as long as I know I am being kind. Kind to myself with boundaries that I protect so I can maintain my way, and kind to others without seeking a return from them.

As I look for the leaders of our country and our communities, I am not looking for nice people, but kind ones. Leaders that are strong enough to have gone through tragedy and come out the other side more open, compassionate, and loving. There are many candidates out there who are nice to people, but are just trying to get something in return. They smile, but don't respect others or are just using the political process for self-aggrandizement or personal gain. They think success is about "winning," when really success is about being. And a huge part of real success is being kind.

And so as I sit near the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree, reflecting on the birthday of a leader who tasked us with loving one another, I realize that I did die around 45. It took God whacking me a few times in the head with a two-by-four, but I was able to start living in a new way. My old life of being nice and not consistently kind was gone. And I have stopped running as much towards adulation and earthly success, and been walking more slowly, softly and simply in a manner that hopefully honors a leader born in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago.

I might not have the strength of "ten Grinches plus two," but I am stronger today than I have ever felt. And with hope and faith, I want to lift up others along this mysterious path called life and continue to exercise muscles that were for too long dormant. And maybe bring a little more cheer to all the Whos in my Whoville no matter how small.

Merry Christmas and there you have it.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.