Tuesday, September 24, 2013

More than Words

My babies, much like their momma, have ravenous appetites. And we’ve been talking quite a bit about the three ways your tummy can feel and really trying to get in touch with that feeling: empty, full, and the middle part in between the two – just right. Today, I am feeling empty. But it is not for food; it is for words.

It’s ironic really. In an era of Twitter and Facebook and a seemingly immeasurable number of social media sites that share and distribute what is loosely described as published “content” to the masses literally every second, today I am feeling a bit on overload. It’s as if there are so many words and yet none. Does this make any sense? Water water everywhere - not a drop to drink.
Words at their finest are far more than cobbled letters on a page. They are actually pictures. They create images, and inspire raw emotions. They require you to engage with them. They elicit thoughtfulness and feelings. They are never flat. They draw you somewhere. The words are the keys to the car or the sneakers on your feet. Their message is but the first step in a long and perhaps difficult journey. And I’m hearing the news and the yelling (read not debating) in Congress and flaps over healthcare and food stamps and I’m just so hungry. I’m hungry for someone to string together some words; to build me that picture that will show me where I want to, where we just need to get going as a people, as a nation.

Oration is the fine art of bringing this story to life, a story so compelling, a vision so bright you could hardly believe it is possible. And you yearn for it. Words drawn from the mouths of great orators inspire people to action. And I was thinking about my life and the young lives of my kids and wondering if they had ever been in the presence of greatness like this, if they had ever heard a speech like this. And they haven’t. Which is fine. They are only 3 and 5. But I was thinking that maybe it was time for all of us to revisit some of the greats so we would know what this looks like when we happen upon it again.
So today I went back to the long slow stuff because I felt hungry for it. I started with the text of King’s speech from the March on Washington. Now for a minute, close your eyes (except you can’t because you are reading this but just imagine) and really digest Martin’s words. See the picture he is painting. Allow yourself to go to the place he is pulling you toward: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.[1]” Did you see that? Did you feel that? Could you imagine literally drowning in a world of inequality, only to be saved by the strength of something stronger and greater than ourselves? It was August of 1963. King’s vision and sense of urgency were clear.

From there I went back a few more months to June of 1963. Kennedy had just sent the National Guard to ensure admission of two qualified black men to the University of Alabama. That evening, in an impromptu televised address to the nation he said this: “It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.[2]” Kennedy calls us out. It isn’t enough to point fingers or merely express condemnation or sadness. We are one country. Their shame, their pain is our own. We must act together. Kennedy’s words paint a vision of one nation experiencing an urgent crisis of the American conscience.
But from there I still wasn’t satisfied. So I went a bit farther back more than 100 years to a young Abraham Lincoln, then running for senate. During his candidacy, he delivered his now famous “house divided” speech at the Illinois state house where he said this: “I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.[3]” Lincoln compels us with his words to confront ourselves. What is our choice? Which America will we become?

And their words, all of them, and the related images they conjure, are not easily digested. I must sit with them and think on them and, as Louis C.K. so brilliantly described in his recent diatribe on smart phones, allow myself to actually feel uncomfortable and sad at the pain and struggle of a great country wrestling with its own demons[4]. At how far we’ve come. At how far we’ve still to go.
Which brought me to one final speech. It was given by a then Senator Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. That night, he said this: “I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: ‘E pluribus unum,’ out of many, one.[5]” And by now my belly was full. And I was longing for that vision of one America that they’d sold me on with their stirring images and lofty ideals.

When I finished my diet of thoughtfulness, I mistakenly dove back into social media where I made the grave error of stumbling upon the nonsensical debate between Harry Reid and Ted Cruz over whether or not to use various legislative magic tricks that may or may not keep the government running, all in an effort to either sustain or defund the healthcare reform act. And I was thinking to myself, gosh, they are so in the weeds. There is no vision, no picture of the place they need to get to. They are like drivers without a map. Or a steering wheel for that matter. It is virtually impossible for them to see or comprehend where they are going. I guess they’ll know when they’ve arrived when they blindly run someone over or crash into a tree.
They need to back up a bit. Because what they really need to be asking is not whether or what to fund, but what as a nation matters to us? What is a priority? And who will paint this vision for us? You’ve got to start there first. Otherwise you are just idiots in fancy suits arguing theoretically about policy decisions that will never personally affect you without ever once considering the implications of what it all means, of what your dug in stance means, for millions and millions of people. It’s all just meaningless words in a vacuum of leadership.

And I want to be clear. I'm not just calling out Obama when I talk about a vacuum of leadership. I like him. I voted for him. But right now I see where he is at. Congress is increasingly looking a whole lot like my kids at 5pm. They are whiny and full of nonsense and beating the crap out of each other for no apparent reason other than the sport of it and I know I could try to sit down and reason with them and sort it all out but I just can’t. I’m too spent. So I put on Phineas and Ferb and at least in my pre-pregnancy days, hide in the kitchen with a glass of wine.
But Mr. President there is no more time for hiding. It’s time for our nation’s leaders to step up and pick up the brush. Help us get out of our own heads, to re-imagine what we mean when we talk about American life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in 2013. It is time to open our eyes and ears, to refill our nation’s bellies and hearts with a vision of what is possible.  And while words and imagery are nice they don’t get you very far. It takes the legislative muscle and peaceful protest and public and private cooperation. But in every era, behind every speech, in every great moment in history, there arose a great prolific figure to deliver the same message. There is one America. We rise together or we all fail. Whether we want to or not, by our forefathers’ design and the inherent complexities of our constitutional government, we cannot separate ourselves from our neighbors. We are by and for the people, one people. One nation. Children who don’t have enough to eat, who can’t afford to see a doctor, are not someone else’s problems. They are ours. Whether we are on food stamps or not, it matters to us not just economically, but also morally if we, as one of the wealthiest developed nations, either cannot, or chose not to care for our own people.

As a nation, it is time to lift ourselves out of the weeds. We don’t need any more words. We need a leader and a vision of the kind of people we want to be. Only then can we begin the hard work and debate that is necessary to create a public and private agenda that will take us where we need and want to go.


[1] http://www.archives.gov/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf
[2] http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/3375
[3] http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/lincoln-a-house-divided-speech-text/
[4] http://gawker.com/louis-c-k-s-explanation-of-why-he-hates-smartphones-is-1354954625
[5] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A19751-2004Jul27.html

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