I’ve been thinking of Kennedy’s famous speech this week. Kennedy was an interesting president, because he called us to service “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” and challenged us to be a better, stronger people (see JFK 50 mile challenge).
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say our leaders don’t do this anymore. Instead, they tell us what we want to hear, blame our faults on their political opponents (and ours), and offer us new products, programs, and promises to make our lives better. Though we are most acutely aware of this in “the other party”, in our moments of quiet reflection, we see this in our own party and candidates as well, especially when we look back into our past.
My grampa, a democrat and union supporter, with a permanent limp from polio, worked three full time jobs to support his wife and nine kids. He qualified for welfare and foodstamps, but always turned them down, saying he didn’t want to be a drag on the system and take from someone who truly needed it. With his permanent limp, he qualified for a handicapped sticker and corresponding parking, but he refused it, even after having open heart surgery later in life. I remember asking him about it as a kid and him telling me “No, that’s just for people who NEED it.”
Contrast that to today. In the midst of a pandemic, both parties are clambering to pass a bill that will write checks to 90% of all Americans, Americans who are the wealthiest generation in the history of the planet. Americans, who have access to better medical care, better information, and better social resources than the richest .1% off the planet had 100 years ago.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t advocate for programs that make us better as a country. I’m not saying the stimulus is the wrong decision, I know lots of local businesses who are struggling and need help during this crisis. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a social safety net, disaster relief, a helping hand for people who need it.
I am saying that in our wealth and technology, we’ve forgotten part of what made our ancestors good. We’ve forgotten the unity, strength, and resilience that is part of our heritage. We’ve forgotten that character and strength are forged in challenge, and we’ve forgotten that our leaders no longer challenge us and call us to be better, because we don’t want them to!
But there is hope. This last week, I’ve seen people reach out and help their neighbors. I’ve seen people donating to food shelves, sewing medical masks, and giving of their resources even as they themselves struggle to adjust to this new crisis. And deep within our national conscious, under the panic, I think we have begun to remember what we can be when we look beyond ourselves and help one another.
The past was far from perfect. Kennedy was no exception – he had demons in his closet. But he was right to call us to something greater than ourselves, something that wasn’t realized until after he was gone.
We would do well to remember that example, to take courage, to relish in this challenge, and to use it as an opportunity to help those around us, for we are all in this together. We don’t do this because it is easy, but because it is hard, because it will make us better, and because it is worth it.