Watching politics, today’s gamesmanship and polarization can suppress patriotism and generate cynicism. And, as we go about our lives, we often get pulled into our routines.
But recently real inspiration came to me politically and personally through the words of our president and the death from cancer of a woman I never met.
Last weekend was the 50th anniversary of a nonviolent civil rights march met by horrific violence, and President Obama was in Selma, Alabama, to mark its importance.
Memorializing the fallen is an art. It’s also the subject of some of the world’s most memorable speeches.
In ancient Athens, Pericles touted the fallen and democratic citizenship: “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all.”
At Gettysburg, Lincoln praised those who perished and called for Americans to rededicate themselves to the vision of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
For the 40th anniversary of D-Day, Reagan spoke of those who died and told the assembled, “Democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.”
President Obama’s speech should be remembered with these, and not only because it mirrored their rhetorical structure. In memorializing Selma’s 50th anniversary, the president told the story of an America that both confronted its difficulties and was defined by its optimism, its hope, its motivation and inspiration to overcome wrongs and hard times.
After crediting the heroes of a half century earlier and noting the names they were called and the threats they faced, Obama asked, “And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place? . . . What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
Our country, its ideals and accomplishments, are made by our strivers for justice and a better life. And so, Obama proclaimed, we “argue and fight with so much passion and conviction, because we know our efforts matter.”
Our nation isn’t static or one-dimensional. As Obama proclaimed, it’s not a land known through “stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.”
With words that resonated with those of Pericles and Lincoln and Reagan, Obama said, “[T]he single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ We the People, We shall Overcome. Yes We can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually improve this great nation of ours.”
“These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a road map for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny.”
Besides these sentiments from a president, I was inspired by Lisa Bonchek Adams, a lively woman in her 40s who died from metastatic breast cancer on Friday.
Adams was tough and honest about her illness and treatment.
“When I die,” Adams said, “don’t say I ‘fought a battle.’” Don’t make it sound like I didn’t try hard enough, or have the right attitude, or that I simply gave up. “Just tell the truth: I lived, I died.”
Adams, who lived in Connecticut, also taught, “Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere.” And also, “Make the most of this day. Whatever that means to you, whatever you can do, no matter how small it seems.”
Obama and Adams inspired with their urging to look at reality unflinchingly, to see the beauty along with the muddiness and mess. We’ve often had challenging times, including now, but they can inspire adults to reach out and act, to love our country and love life. That’s a kind of inspiration suited for grownups.