The year ‘oughtness’ met ‘isness’

I’ve been struggling to find the words to describe what 2010 has been like for me until I worked my way through Revival by Richard Wolffe. Covering the first two years of the Obama presidency, the book is a sequel to Renegade, Wolffe’s coverage of Obama’s historic election.

The book confronts the early failures of the Obama White House — both real and perceived — particularly when it comes to the long and arduous fight to reform health care. More importantly, it explores Obama’s path to redemption as he worked his way from losing his identity as the anti-Washington outsider to recovering the spirit of hope and change he deftly carried during the campaign.

Obama has always been a hero of mine, and in a way I’ve always felt that my fortunes were tied to his. This is an ironic thing to say since I’m not so big on hero worship — at least until the right one came along.

For the most part I’ve been mum whenever he was on the ropes. When the critics called for his demise and the news that filtered into the Philippine press is that he has become quite unpopular in the States, I just kept quiet. I didn’t defend him. Silently, I questioned him but fervently, I held on to hope. I relate so much to his story, his life, and his belief about politics and change, that any failing on his part was an opportunity for me to question my own. And ask I did.

Hence it was quite enlightening to read that throughout most of the protracted health care fight, Obama and his team didn’t feel entirely in control. Split between two factions within the White House — the Revivalists who wanted to channel the positive spirit of the campaign and the Survivalists who wanted Obama to master the Washington game and survive for eight years — Obama constantly oscillated between the two.

However thinking that getting his hands dirty on policy — and hence politics — was what passing health care required, he swung towards the side of the Survivalists. Securing votes became his priority; he struck deals and focused on committees, all the while neglecting to communicate and explain what he’s doing to the public. Even I found it ironic at that time — that a man who relied so much on big moments during the campaign played it really small during the health care fight.

The tipping point came when a series of letters from ordinary Americans found its way to Obama’s desk, and one particularly stood out. It was about a woman who was about to lose the house she was born in because she had to pay for the 40% increase in the premiums for her health care plan. This infuriated Obama; it turned out that companies nationwide were doing the same thing. Obama then channeled the spirit of 2008. He began going back to town halls. He held televised talks and forums. He targeted the Democratic congressmen whose votes he needed. He appealed to their better angels through epic speeches. Health care was ultimately passed and signed in to law.

What gripped me throughout the book was Obama’s struggle with himself. To everyone, he never seemed to be fazed by anything. He paid incredible attention to detail, read widely, and had a great sense of what everyone thought of him and how he did his job but without letting his own feelings and reactions out on the table. He was a man constantly aware of himself and where he was between idealism and realism, between the world that he wanted to create and the world that he had to confront as president.

Perhaps the clearest example of this inner struggle can be seen in how he tentatively rose up to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. It wasn’t an award he wanted, and in the first days of his awarding it felt more like a cross to bear to Golgotha. In this highlight from his acceptance speech, he begins to close his talk by bridging the gap between the non-violence practiced by the likes of Gandhi and King and the reality of war.

We do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their faith in human progress – must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

For if we lose that faith – if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace – then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.

Like generations have before us, we must reject that future. As Dr. King said at this occasion so many years ago, “I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”

For majority of 2010, I have been on Survivalist mode. This isn’t a bad thing of course. Through the years I’ve learned to work with the system and I’m now at that point where I can make it work for me. But I realize now that I may not be doing so much to fundamentally change it. I used to reject it; I used to deny the false choices that it gave me. Right now I feel that I need to recover some of the Revivalist spirit that brought me to this place. In a year of ‘isness’, I’ve missed the wild and unpredictable ‘oughtness’ — it still haunts me, and I know I’ll have to confront it.

By this of course I refer not just to the work I do every day, but to something that has long been my North Star even before I started teaching. What that is though, I’ll keep with me. Over the past year I’ve come to rediscover Confucius, and of all the lines I can recite off the top of my head, this alone haunts me — “The exemplary person first accomplishes what they are going to do, and only then say it.”

Perhaps in that line too is a clue of where my North points to.

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