With rare exceptions, this is not an era when we can look to our leaders for inspiration, not in politics, not in religion, not in journalism.
There were periods when a Roosevelt, an Eisenhower, a Kennedy, a Reagan knew how to deal with difficult times and still give the public some sense of hope. Now, political figures try to divide us, poke fun at “hopey-changey” aspirations and leave inspiration to others. We have religious figures who argue over whether Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays is the appropriate greeting and try to suppress the participation of other faiths in the winter holiday season that goes back many millennia. And it is hard to find a William Allen White or a Francis Church to lift the public’s spirits with a “Yes, Virginia” editorial.
Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, sensing that everyday people might feel uneasy rejoicing in the holidays when U.S. soldiers and sailors were fighting and dying, Franklin Roosevelt let the public know he understood that feeling:
“There are many men and women in America—sincere and faithful men and women—who are asking themselves this Christmas: How can we light our trees? How can we give our gifts? How can we meet and worship with love and with uplifted spirit and heart in a world at war, a world of fighting and suffering and death? …
“And even as we ask these questions, we know the answer. There is another preparation demanded of this nation beyond and beside the preparation of weapons and materials of war. There is demanded also of us the preparation of our hearts; the arming of our hearts. And when we make ready our hearts for the labor and the suffering and the ultimate victory which lie ahead, then we observe Christmas Day—with all of its memories and all of its meanings—as we should.”
When the nation was plunged into gloom, President Reagan knew people—including children—still needed to believe in ideas and invention:
“Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss. … I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”
Today, however, those kinds of voices are silent. But if our leaders cannot inspire, we can still look to ourselves as a people. Robert Kennedy once said we put too much faith in our gross national product and not enough in everyday things—“the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play … the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages.” Those come from our best selves. He also named the courage, wisdom, learning, and compassion in ourselves—qualities politicians now disdain in us.
But we do not need to listen to those disdainful voices. In this holiday season, we can look to each other, in our homes and gathering places and community, and know we are not what our leaders try to make of us.