February 28th, 2017

Trying to live a life of respect and joy

This is my latest column for the local newspaper. It appeared today.

A Facebook friend and I have been discussing America’s future in light of the tone of our times.

It’s easy to predict nothing but gloom. Washington lacks leaders who can unite and inspire us. Instead, politicians divide us. Because of this leadership vacuum, people worry about their futures.

It’s not as bad as it seems.

For some perspective, watch the CNN series "The Sixties" on Netflix. Anxiety hangs over us, but 55 years ago, a turbulent decade started with the Cuban Missile Crisis—a confrontation over nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia. We stood at the brink of apocalypse.

During the 1960s, our nation faced upheaval—often violent—related to civil rights, racism, the war in Vietnam, and the slaughter of leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Democracy itself was threatened in 1968 by thuggish police brutality at the Democratic National Convention.

And the Cold War loomed over all of it.

Yet we endured—not without bruises, but nonetheless, we endured.

Today, with polarization roiling the land, Americans are wondering about the future of hope. What can we as individuals do to restore it?

It begins with small acts of individual kindness. When I taught at St. Bonaventure, I learned about the university’s Franciscan values. To me, the most important one is to recognize the dignity and worth of every person.

This value transcends religion. It can be part of all of our lives.

How can we put this value to work? By saying hello to strangers. Smiling. Lingering to hold doors open for the people behind us. Paying compliments. Listening, instead of waiting for our turns to talk. And by reacting to life with joy—another Franciscan value.

We can each hope for a miracle that results in our bringing about sweeping, positive change. But it’s more realistic to believe each of us is a sandbag, working together to protect society from a flood of turmoil.

As the Sixties showed, democracy is tumultuous. It’s more clamorous today because everybody has a megaphone, thanks to social media, and social media grants anonymity to cowardly expressions of hate.

But in the ‘60s, Americans made society better—not perfect, yet better.

We are in bruising times again, yet we will endure—again.