Our Country of Sacrifice

I’ve been reading presidential speeches because I want to feel good about my country. By ‘country’ I don’t mean the nation to which we pledge allegiance. Rather, I mean my tribe — we, the people, who have agreed to live together in peace, or at least try. 

As the fiscal cliff neared, I hung out on Twitter to see smart people calling our leaders incompetent. Four-in-five Americans don’t approve of Congress. Fifty-percent of Americans don’t approve of our president. It makes sense, because as a nation we have a debt to pay off which means we will have to pay more taxes, while government services are cut. We will pay more and get less

Meanwhile, our leaders are playing childish games with our livelihood, the rich are getting richer, one-in-133 people are in prison, almost 17 million children have to worry about food, almost 45 percent believe global warming isn’t happening, one in every 8,300 people kills themselves and all the while we’re often ambivalent to the tragic living conditions around the world, almost to the point that we can click on the world news section of any newspaper and feel nothing. Absolutely nothing.

While reading presidential speeches, I found John F. Kennedy’s most famous quote in context. It goes something like this:

I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what, together, we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.

What’s so foreign to me is that JFK had the bravery to ask for sacrifice. We live in a time when comfort is king, and sacrifice is the antithesis of that. We live in a place where comfort is relative — and nearly everyone thinks they can use a little more — but the word ‘sacrifice’ cuts through our various standards of living and asks us to lower that bar for the good of the tribe.

I think what has discouraged me most this week is that, as we approached this “fiscal cliff,” we talked mostly about how petulant our leaders are, how uncompromising our opponents are, how uncertain our future is. Here’s a taste.

In “Les Miserables” Fantine sings the following words:

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.

What has discouraged me is the way I’ve been thinking while this situation has unfolded. Instead of thinking about people, dreams and a tribe, I’ve been thinking of numbers, votes and a republic. One is a myopic view of life and a prudent view of government; the other is a myopic view of government, but a prudent view of life. 

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