For as much as government can do…it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies….It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate….This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
Beautiful and true are these words of President Obama, spoken at his inauguration. Our nation will not long endure if we citizens are not possessed of a strong character, of a knowledge of what is right and wrong in the great choices and small details of our lives, and of the willingness and capability to do the right and shun the wrong.
Our new president seems to sense that the answer to our nation’s problems is not billions of dollars printed by the government, but billions of individual acts of integrity, responsibility, sacrifice, and love. Not one of these individual acts can be provided by a government program; each requires that a specific, real person choose to do not what is easy or convenient, but what is difficult and costly.
After hearing these words and cheering the man who spoke them, 1.8 million specific, real people departed from the national Mall and the parade route. These 1.8 million people, making millions of individual choices, left behind them more than 200 tons of garbage, so much refuse that twenty street sweepers and hundreds of city workers and volunteers had to be employed to work through the night to pick up after them.
Littering is not, certainly, the gravest of sins facing America today; it is a nuisance that I am perhaps generationally sensitive to. Forty years ago in the public schools of our nation “Don’t be a litterbug” was preached with all the moral intensity of today’s anti-smoking campaigns among our children. It must be admitted, however, that to pick up after oneself, to put one’s bottles and signs and wrappers in the trash cans or to carry them home again, is no great sacrifice, not to a crowd which been just been called to a “new era of responsibility”.
Fine words and inspiring ideas make a difference only when they cause us to look again at our everyday choices, confirming the good and challenging the bad. I wonder what would have happened had President Obama asked, with his quiet dignity, for each member of the crowd to make sure he picked up after himself before moving on to celebrate. Leadership is not simply a matter of proclaiming what is right, what people ought to do. Leadership is the much more difficult task of getting others to follow, getting them to do the right thing, especially when it is difficult.
George Washington at Valley Forge had to convince his troops not to desert, not to return to the families who needed them; he had to persuade them to risk their lives and give up every shred of physical comfort for the sake of America’s future liberty. That he was able to do so receives our greatest admiration and gratitude. President Obama must convince his countrymen not to abandon their children, not to spend money they don’t have, not to cheat on their taxes and in their businesses. These are the same countrymen who found the challenge of properly disposing of their garbage too great a sacrifice. I wish him well.
This change in national leadership – cause for jubilant celebration but also, should his campaign promises be kept, cause for deep grief for many of us – does nothing to change our own abilities and responsibilities to lead in our own families, workplaces, and neighborhoods.
We are the ones who can insist that our children pick up their trash, finish their homework, and earn their spending money. We are the ones who can set an example by shoveling our sidewalks, giving an honest day’s work to our employers, turning off the television and putting down the Blackberry and joining our family around the dinner table. We are the ones who can help a friend find a job, can talk a buddy into putting down his drink and going home to his wife, can take care of our aging parents, can give generously to charities.
We are the ones who can storm the stairway and nurture the child. We are the ones who can lead, if we will. Yes, indeed, we can.
Dia Boyle, a graduate in Medieval studies, writes from the American Midwest.