Hope in a Time of Uncertainty

In 1940 journalist Edward R. Murrow stood in a church in England while the country endured German bombers night after night. Inside the church was a crudely written sign which read, “If your knees knock, kneel on them.”

I don’t know about you, but my knees have been knocking a lot over the last several months. Within the last year, the atmosphere of the country has become thick with the stench of corruption, hypocrisy, rage, and hate speech. The last two are the most unsettling.

Last summer’s angry town hall meetings along with declining poll numbers of Congress confirm that people are fed up with a Washington consumed more by the business of politics and self-interest than the business of the people. However, between the party-centric bickering and the blustering pundits, Americans have allowed cynicism to replace hope and fear to overtake reason. If ever we need those two qualities – hope and reason – it is now. If ever we need to believe in the best we can be, it is now.

The spirit of America, expressed in its people and its principles, has carried us through everything from our first American crisis to a Great Depression, from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. During those times, Americans have worked to overcome whatever challenges they faced.

I believe in hope, but we need something more.

We need a new model of citizenship, one that not only recognizes a shared purpose, but also a shared responsibility. America’s moral leadership may rest with the office of the presidency, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, but its moral responsibility rests with the American people themselves.

“We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of national unity,” Roosevelt told an anxious nation in 1933, “with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values….”

Americans need to return to those values in a way where individuals come to the table respecting another’s right to their point of view, even if they disagree with that view; we need to come together with a responsibility to share the burdens of tough times as well as the fruit of the good.

We can debate how we get there, but without the infrastructure of honesty, fairness, responsibility, and above all, respect, we can never achieve our long term goal of being the best that we can be. This isn’t a Republican issue or a Democratic issue; this is a fundamental, ethical issue.

We have only to recall the times during the past year – as when one Senator openly boasted of wanting the President to fail, and a Representative called him a liar during a presidential address – to recognize the fear and rancor propagated even by those who govern.

In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned that we “must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”

Three decades later, Senator Ted Kennedy spoke, not only, of his own failings but reminded his audience that, “Individual faults and fragilities are no excuse to give in, and no exemption from the common obligation to give of ourselves. Today, more than ever before, I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world, but to make ourselves better, too….”

These may be the times that try our souls, as Thomas Paine so eloquently affirmed during that first American Crisis, but we’ve gone from fear to faith countless times, and we can return to that faith again if we remember who we are and what we stand for. Integrity, trust and confidence:  that’s what Americans want. That’s what we need, and that’s what we can achieve again.

26 comments… add one
  • Frank, California December 28, 2009, 8:43 am

    This all makes terrifying sense.

  • Terry, California December 28, 2009, 8:49 am

    Well done.

  • Sid, California December 28, 2009, 8:56 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more! Neither party is blameless, but I don’t know of a precedent for such a unified effort to derail EVERYTHING a president tries to do. Several Democrats voted for virtually all of Bush’s initiatives.

    And your other point is the most important: the loss of any sense of shared community and of the legitimacy of opposing views. The “tea party” movement, while not necessarily unprecedented in our history, is a disturbing sign: pure rage inflamed by a concerted media effort on the right, completely devoid of factual grounding. I see it as the perfect paradigm for where we’re headed. Namely, to complete ungovernability.

  • Julian, California December 28, 2009, 8:57 am

    What a great article, Jim! As usual, you plumb to the heart of the matter which underlies the symptoms of my tirade a couple weeks ago.

    Thank you, Jim, for these words from the mountain top. I would like to see a cabinet post of Ethics Chair with you in it. On to the new year (although I do confess some trepidation).

  • Matt, California December 28, 2009, 8:59 am

    Read it. It was good and to the point and not to one sided (politically) 🙂

  • John, California December 28, 2009, 9:01 am

    I read your latest essay with great care and concentration. It reflects what we all would like to see happen — the refining and polishing back of the American people.

    I look at pictures of my dad and mom, wearing suits and hats on a Sunday ice cream social in the central park area of Belleville, KS in 1928 and think was a simpler kinder time it was. Looming ahead of them, however, was the Great Depression, followed by World War II, and after that, many things changed.

    The interconnection of the world — from Osama’s cave to the top of the Empire State building — instant communication and news, and instant potential for destruction and death.

    No matter how kind we become, there are sworn enemies out there whose religion sanctions murder, lying and suicide bombing of innocents. This will be, in the next two decades, the greatest challenge democracy has ever faced.
    I want to think optimistically, as you do in your essay, but an overwhelming sense of “it is so far out of my control” that I have found myself and Jeannie focusing on family, stability and every day joys which includes helping others, scholarships for college kids in need, and encouraging our grandchildren who are blessed the tremendous talent and have no inkling of the looming dark clouds.
    My black lab Ruby, who adores me, is my role model. All she needs is love and for her, there is only happiness ahead.

  • David, California December 28, 2009, 9:02 am

    It is an excellent essay. I kept thinking, though, why focus only on our country. Somehow we must become better at identifying with all people in all places. We are all connected, as John Donne so poignantly reminded us long ago (No man is an island…”). It seems to me that only by embracing those connections that do not stop at borders will we find a way to make this planet the paradise it could actually be. If we fail in this, uncertainty may be our high mark, and far worse is possible.

    Someone gave me, and I want to recommend to you, a really good small book, War Is a Racket by Smedley Butler (a major general who received two Congressional Medals of Honor).

  • Harold, New York December 28, 2009, 9:03 am

    How about an “Ethical Solutions to America’s Problems” link?

    Anyone with ideas about how to solve the (Republicans vs Democrats) vs (the American people) problem should write you and you should forward them to congress…or whomever (the media is best). No one is happy about this, but the politicians won’t fix it.

  • Karen, California December 28, 2009, 9:04 am

    What a great article to jump start my morning and New Year. I’ll need to re-read it again from home. May I say you are a wonderful writer, what a pleasure it is to read your work.

    I also checked out the article posted “More than Ordinary.” Wow, how moving was that!!!

  • Randy, New Mexico December 28, 2009, 9:05 am

    Great essay.

  • Terry, California December 28, 2009, 9:06 am

    Great column, and I totally agree. It is a daunting challenge in today’s media climate when so many are polarized and partisan and take their cues from reductive bombasts.

    Just this morning Peter and I were discussing how to design a talk or lecture about the parallels between energy sustainability and a good business model, one that could be presented to an audience that reads the editorial page of the [Wall Street Journal]. China is eating our lunch because their energy policy is that of efficiency, and although they’re aggressively burning coal, they’re working even more aggressively on remediation and getting alternatives on line. They have outpaced us in development and implementation of high speed trains, photovoltaics, wind, etc. But if we were to price carbon in any real fashion (it’s currently subsidized by not addressing the externalities such as warming or war), we’d be HIGHLY incentivized to grow new industries and build new infrastructure.

    Instead, the subject has become politicized, with bloggers, talk [show] hosts, and elected officials implying that anything to do with progress around energy and natural resources stems from a Communist plot.

    I miss Ike. Lord, there are times I miss Nixon!

    So what do we do when hate and conflict sells and collaboration has become political heresy?

  • Kat, Ohio December 28, 2009, 9:13 am

    I enjoyed your message and I hope that others will read and heed!

  • Rami, Tennessee December 28, 2009, 9:18 am

    I loved the essay and sent out a link to it on my Twitter list. I don’t know if I believe in hope any longer. I have no hope in politicians or religious leaders. Even the civil action at Copenhagen proved meaningless. Perhaps I will found the First Church of Despair.
    Happy New Year.

  • Dick, California December 28, 2009, 9:20 am

    Amen. Best wishes for a happy, healthy, peaceful New Year!

  • Mo, California December 28, 2009, 9:21 am

    That is an excellent essay Jim. But, as you’re probably tired of hearing from me, the double standard is stunning. …Why weren’t essays like yours being composed during the eight years of Bush Bashing?

  • Jim December 28, 2009, 9:23 am

    You’re right, Mo! No ONE should be doing it… period!

  • Mo, California December 28, 2009, 9:25 am

    Nice try Jim, but that doesn’t cut it. The only examples being given these days when there’s outrage over mean things being said these last 12 months, are quotes that some conservative said. Why aren’t there examples of all the vicious, hateful, scary things that were said for eight years during the Bush years? Not one peep about those. THAT”S what I mean about the double standard……..eight freakin’ years and I bet you didn’t write one word about it, nor did anyone else on the left.

  • Loretta, California December 29, 2009, 8:40 am

    Yes, it will take much more than hope.

  • Steve, Florida December 29, 2009, 8:41 am

    Happy New Year Jim and congratulations on your thoughtful essay.

  • Cindy, California December 30, 2009, 8:31 am

    I loved it! You are very wise and to the point. Happy New Year.

  • Cherilyn, California December 30, 2009, 8:34 am

    Loved it and forwarded it!

  • Leslie, California December 31, 2009, 8:24 am

    Excellent essay. Your best yet!

  • Leonard, California December 31, 2009, 8:25 am

    Thank you for the stirring, year-end message!

  • John, Washington, DC December 31, 2009, 8:26 am

    Well done Jim! One of your best! Happy New Year.

  • Norman Corwin, California February 16, 2010, 8:21 am

    “Brilliant. We need fifty more Jim Lichtmans!”

    Note: Corwin is an unparalleled writer and teacher. His radio plays in the 1930s and ’40s inspired the likes of Orson Wells, Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Norman Lear, Gene Roddenberry, and me, to name but a few.

    While meeting with Norman recently, I shared this essay and he offered these comments to be posted. He has not only been a strong supporter of my work (two of his stories appear in my “Stand For” book) but has become a close friend and advisor.

    For me, receiving a comment like this from Norman Corwin is like winning a Nobel Prize in Literature.

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