There was a lot to like about this week's inauguration of President Barack Obama, the 44th President, the 17th man—yes, man (we need to work on that)— to be elected twice. The dais looked like America – from Myrlie Evers Williams to Joe Biden, from Sonia Sotomayor to Beyoncé. There was even a poet. A gay, Cuban-American one. The President—like Lincoln at Gettysburg—leaned heavily on the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
He reminded us—rightly so—that our work isn’t done. He encouraged us to continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. And he challenged us: For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing. He called the hard issues by name: climate change and marriage equality and immigration reform. He spurred us not to forget the children of Newtown or the sacrifices of the Civil Rights movement.
But the part of the speech that I have turned over and over in my mind today was this:
My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today, like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction – and we must faithfully execute that pledge during the duration of our service. But the words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty, or an immigrant realizes her dream. My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride.
They are the words of citizens, and they represent our greatest hope.
You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.
You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.
Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.
That’s the challenge that leaves a lump in my throat and—I’m afraid—a knot in my stomach. Because, if we are honest with ourselves, are we up to the task? I know that we are well-acquainted with our rights and obligations as parents and children, as employee and employer, as buyer and seller. But I wonder. When we take those oaths—the ones that call us to ennobled citizenship—what do they stir in our hearts? Do we even know where to start?
I fear that our citizen-selves are so unpracticed and ungainly—are so deeply buried—that we have become a nation of delegators and observers. I fear that we send our designees to Washington or Salem or city hall and then we go back to shopping on Amazon and forget about them until the spectacle of the next election cycle.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope that today—and next Monday and the one that follows—each of us will re-take our oath and pull up our socks. I hope alongside our grocery list and to-do list at work, we will make another list, a list of our intentions as citizens and co-creators of our own society.
Here are some of mine:
1. I will abandon the rhetoric of certainty unless I am actually certain. I will think out loud, admit uncertainty, and change course if I am convinced that I am wrong. I will enter conversations in the spirit of learning, and problem-solving, and creativity.
2. I will reach out to at least one person I know I disagree with, and I will ask them—in sincerity and open-heartedness—to share their point-of-view.
3. I will volunteer a little time and give a little money to an organization that I think can make a positive difference in our civic life. There many organizations to choose from, but I’m thinking about this one: http://www.nolabels.org/.
It’s a small list, a modest one. But, we’ve got to start somewhere. What about you?
p.s. – I’ve got some ideas about poetic citizenship as well, but I think I’ll leave that for another day, for another post.