Godspeed, Barack Obama

obama-farewell

I found President Obama’s farewell speech magnificent. Maybe he did divide the nation. So did Abraham Lincoln. On matters of principle it’s necessary to force us to face our lesser selves. Social justice, inequality, racial bias, healthcare as a human right, healing our polluted planet, science and data as benchmarks, yeah, those are divisive issues that need to be in our faces.

Where he divided us on the what, he will be a historic figure in the continuum of our empathy — as he said, this is a process and we’re not where we need to be. Where he divided us on the how, I have empathy for the lines where we split — that is political and he is admittedly imperfect, driving us to carry the torch to fix the unsolved problems of implementation.

We should disagree, but not as much about the what as the how. It’s healthy to divide on the how until thesis and antithesis resolve in synthesis. Where we can disagree respectfully on matters of resource allocation, we can commit to working together toward compromise. Where we shouldn’t disagree on matters of fairness and sustainability, we must continue to grow as a nation and people.

Barack Obama leaves office loved by many not just within our borders, but in the global community where he is a welcomed traveler. That kind of passion is extraordinary. His style is content. He is embraced as an ambassador of authenticity, positive change, and achieving complex goals. He reminds us what we can be if we set the bar higher than we can ever imagine.

Among those of us who feel this sense of love, our admiration is heartfelt and has been earned. Love is about inspiration and aspiration. Love causes us to care more, work harder, and believe in a call to service. We know this because we have lived it together, guided by his leadership, knowing we are part of something that has mattered and will continue to matter.

On this Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday, it is my true joy to say the only words I know that express my pride, admiration, and humble gratitude to the outgoing President of the United States: Thank You. His courage, his life example, his visionary contribution to our world may not be repeated in my lifetime. To have shared these eight years with him from afar has reminded me that hope is possible, good deeds are possible, one person’s life can forever make a difference for the better in the legacy of selflessness.

I don’t think I have ever been more inspired to thought and action than I have by this man. He will forever be in my heart. He makes me want to spend my remaining years trying even harder to help lift humanity a tiny inch higher.

Yes, we can.

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What’s Going On?

Marvin Gaye: What's Going On?We wake up to news that the prior night an innocent person was killed at point-blank range. We come back from lunch to news of a mass shooting in a public gathering place. We drive home from work but have to go around downtown because there’s a bomb scare. We sit down to dinner and try to dissect the political ramblings of where to plant the blame and why it’s someone else’s fault that nothing can be done about bloodshed. We go to bed trying to shut out the squabbling hysteria and another gunshot rings out. This time maybe it’s across the street.

Alton Sterling.

Philando Castile.

The slaughter of five police officers in Dallas.

That’s was in 72 hours, folks.

Last month we suffered Orlando. Last year it was San Bernardino. Two years ago it was Ferguson. Sandy Hook, Aurora, and Columbine might seem to some like ancient history. We can’t even keep an inventory or a timeline in our own minds —and that’s before we even toss in the endless acts of organized terrorism around the globe.

Some of the shooters are mentally ill, some are socially broken, sadly enough, some are cops. You try to tease them apart — it’s not the same thing when a psychopath fires into the crowd as it is when a jittery police officer kills a pleading African-American on the street — but under all of it you find the common theme: unrestrained hatred, reckless emotion taking power over determined action.

Violence, murder, death. Blame, finger-pointing, posturing. Every single day now. What vision of America is this? How did we get ourselves here? The victims fall pointlessly and then the rest of us argue to exhaustion. We have to be better than this. We just have to be better than this.

If the best minds speak out, will we hear them?

We are simultaneously irate and numb. How exactly can we be both of those at the same time?

Is it the 300 million cheap retail guns? The mass economic inequality? A sudden perceived freedom to express racist thoughts as “just saying candidly what’s on someone’s mind?” Too much pent-up anger in the institutions empowered to protect us from widespread chaos?

Marvin Gaye sang it the last time we rumbled nationally on the topic of civil rights. What’s Going On?

It’s more than we can see, hear, feel, or perceive. It’s not us and them. It’s not here and there. We are all in it all the time whether we want to be or not. Hello, Social Media, the untethered connectivity that weaves us together habitually and perpetually.

I am convinced the internet itself has to be at work here, although I see it as an equal plus and minus given the freedom it has already inspired in developing, previously autocratic countries. It’s not a coincidence that public violence and social media are exploding together.

Think about it. TV was the fuel of Vietnam protests and the Civil Rights Movement. We saw stuff everyday on analog television that we never saw before, and that made us mad, so we reacted. Now the internet lets us see and hear everything in realtime, it lasts a second in impact, and then a meme wipes that out with another. Nothing is edited, vicious words and horrific images fly around the globe at light speed. Regular folks like us gobble it up and talk about it like tallying statistics, while other “less regular” folks do who knows what because of it or maybe even try to make their own news for a few seconds.

Pretty soon we are on overload, frozen in inability to combat the madness.

Yes, the for-profit media is playing a role, but I don’t think it’s the big money professionals who are whipping up the frenzy as much as our addiction to social media. I don’t think any of us understands the impact the constant give-and-take-and-tackle-and-refute is having on us because we are devouring the scraps embedded in the platform simultaneously with its invention — without enough history, context, or perspective to make real sense of the role we are playing as nodes.

This is not a value judgment on our actions, mind you, it’s an observation. I am as guilty as anyone of living in the fray of exchange. I am more guilty because I am a writer and any good I try to do in getting you to think about this stuff can and will backfire and create more angst in its dismissal and rebuttal.

Sorry, I don’t have any brilliant answers. I’m a little frozen as well, a lot like you. I’m an observer and an interpreter, one voice trying to wrestle through the noise and rhetoric. I am convinced that it is not going to be a politician who leads us out of this muck. Martin Luther King wasn’t elected. He inspired his following. He paid the price, and he made a difference. We need that badly. I don’t have a clue what a Dr. King looks like in the 21st century or even if such a thing is possible anymore given our cynicism. I hope someone out there can figure out how to be one, the real deal.

Here’s one answer: Don’t let social media demoralize you. Don’t let the random ramblings of reactionary tirades spin you. Don’t be confused and don’t be manipulated by entrenched greed or opportunistic power grabs. Stay focused on ideas that resonate with your values, but listen thoughtfully when someone who looks or sounds different from you is making a compelling case for justice. Celebrate unsung heroes who are quietly making a difference. Catch someone in an act of compassion and sing their praises. The self-imposed noise around us can be divisive or unifying — it’s a rather important choice and always a choice.

Apathy and the status quo aren’t a solution. Terror can’t be a norm. We must find a way to unmake this mess. Don’t give up. Demand better. Demand sanity. Listen for the silenced voice in the room without an agenda. The better answers won’t be in obvious places. It is time to Think Different.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Creativity and Courage

Teddy Roosevelt — who legend has it never wanted to be called by that name — is back in the news, at least to the extent that we are finding reason to quote him of late.  In response to an earlier post of mine, a friend who had a challenging year sent me the following quote from Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

The quote comes from a speech Roosevelt delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910, just after the completion of his presidency.  He ponders a world which is increasingly industrialized, the role of the common man in its development, and the critical nature of risk in our capitalist economy.  Roosevelt is optimistic about America’s role in the New World, the rising living standard for the middle class, and the importance of learning — academic and experiential — to the evolution of our civilization.  “The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” spoke the former President.  He was a champion of character.  He had no appetite for the voice of the cynic.

There is a lot of substance in Roosevelt’s reflection, but the essence for me comes back to the notion of the creative process, whether in business or government or science or art, what it means to put oneself in the public light with new ideas.  I write a good deal about innovation and creative destruction, how it is essential to the evolution of our norms, but not enough about the drive behind that process, the extremely hard work of dodging the ordinary and then attempting to get others onboard where they might otherwise be uncomfortable.  Getting attacked is no fun, but it comes with the territory of the new.  Creativity is not only exhausting, it’s messy.

I think this is what Roosevelt was getting at, how leaders in any field first dare themselves to expose a new idea, then attempt to explain that idea to others, then prepare themselves to share the bounty in success or accept the blame in failure, as if neither is more likely or important than the other.  The point in finding the courage to advance an untested notion is specifically that, to test it.  If the notion proves of merit than the win is broad, but if not, the win is equally broad because the test has eliminated a dead-end we all can acknowledge and use as a new reference point for further testing.

It is the courage to address the critic, the skeptic, that is so uncommon.  We know it when we see it, but we don’t see it enough.  We are hungry to hear ideas, but too often all we hear is naysaying.  It is much easier to be a critic than an innovator, in that the innovator approaches creativity with self-critique an implicit part of the process, a means, not an end.  The critic whose work begins and ends there offers opinion, even explanation, but if there is no build on the work of the innovator, then what is the value added?

We hear our political candidates bash each other for sport, so much so that we become numb to it.  They are not listening to each other and we are not listening to them so what good is being accomplished by the perpetuating standoff?  When this happens in business, companies are lost.  When it happens in science, we run in place.  When it happens in the arts, our culture becomes stagnant.  Roosevelt looked forward and advised us to fear the downside of not trying more than the downside of coming up short.

The individual who has a story to tell risks all, because the more that story is original, the more it is likely to be rejected.  Think of the powerful corporations who did not believe we would all have our own computers someday, and the few individuals who thought we would and got them to our desktops.  Think of Martin Luther King’s vision for a desegregated America, the resistance against his ideals, and the normalcy today of celebrating diversity.  Think of The Beatles dreaming in those seedy clubs in Hamburg, when much of the music establishment was convinced that guitar bands were on their way out.  Think of the first doctors and medical researchers to propose the notion of a vaccine, how frightening that seemed to so many, and the diseases we would still suffer today were it not for their willingness to persevere.

Not all ideas are good, and not all visionaries are right.  True visionaries know this, and they know that failure will always be part of the package.  As we listen to those around us attempting to tackle the more complex problems of the day, perhaps we would do well to remember that even if an idea proves wrong, the people courageous enough to explore that idea might be doing something right.  Everyone wants to win, but not everyone is brave enough to want to try.  Where we are unable to find that courage in ourselves, let’s not forget to praise it in those who are exposing themselves to critique.

Look for the spark in the brave people around us who worry less about what others say about them, and worry more about overcoming constraints on what can be possible when we appropriately embrace courage.  To be honest, they don’t much care what the crowd thinks, but the crowd has everything to gain by inviting themselves to the party.  We have more challenges facing us today than the Progressive Republican President Roosevelt could have imagined, yet even more paths to triumph through knowledge if the most inspired creative voices are heard.