Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Taking the message

Express Staff Writer

After the euphoria and the hoopla, after the sense of connection with so many across the nation, after the first night of the honeymoon, we all need to ponder the new responsibilities and opportunities created by the Obama administration. It's the new president's intent to involve us all in a movement to use our resources and talents to restore the image most of us have experienced of the idea of a strong and generous America. I grew up in an optimistic, though "bland" and perhaps naïve era after World War II, the Eisenhower years, and had a strong hope for and belief in the ability of American people to do good in the world. I thought I would be a part of that as well, one of the overriding reasons I became a teacher. Indeed, my best memories of teaching are the moments when I caught a student suddenly comprehending a point that stretched his mind, gave a teenager a boost to an understanding of his abilities, or counseled a pupil from one of my classes who felt she had nowhere else to go for some TLC. That's why I taught.

I listened carefully to the campaign reminder "Yes we can," and eagerly anticipated the rhetoric of Obama's inaugural address. I was not disappointed. I would like to analyze just one part of his speech that, broken down, illustrates what we are challenged—and blessed—with. On those cold steps, on Jan. 20, 2009, Obama said, "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."

The first thing on Obama's list is that "we have duties to ourselves." Aren't we already too self-absorbed and self-centered? However, like having a pet one cares for, feeds and then caresses every day, there are benefits to a more selfless behavior. A recent study of elderly retirees published in the Journal of Urban Health found that volunteers age 60 through 86 who helped in Baltimore public schools outscored their non-participating counterparts in both physical and cognitive ability. So doing good for other is, apparently, good for one one's own body and soul.

The second aspect we are urged to consider is our duty to our country. Shortly before Jan. 20, a movement called "Renew America Together" was announced by the president-elect. People can check out to find opportunities to participate in this effort. I have long thought, even during the Vietnam War, that service to our country in the way of building needed structures, helping the deprived children of our country, through teaching or mentoring, and serving in numerous capacities could be an alternative to military service and a positive addition to young people's education. Habitat for Humanity is just one example of an attractive and meaningful way for people to be involved in rebuilding lives and hopes. I am probably preaching to the converted, citizens already aware of these regional and national opportunities. In this valley especially, many residents spend time volunteering for some of the nonprofit organizations that proliferate in our blessed community. Often, however, many of us know we could do more, even with our busy and frenetic lives.

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