January 21, 2001
Well, we inaugurated another president on Saturday. As cynical as you all know me to be about politics, I still get moved by this stuff. Maybe it’s because every once in awhile, I realize how much I take for granted about living in this amazing country on this remarkable continent.
George Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, as our first president. Since there were no models for a democratically elected leader, the founding dudes had lengthy discussions about what his title should be prior to his inauguration. The two strongest contenders were “His Mightiness” and “His Highness.”
I think it might have been the janitor who said “Hey, how about something simple, like Mr. President?” Nobody but Washington thought that was a good idea. Everybody else thought it would make this new republic look weak in the eyes of the world. “Mr. President” sounded like it could be anybody — just another Mister. But that is exactly why George Washington liked it and why the title stuck. Then Washington did something even more remarkable: he served two terms and stepped down. At the time, people actually wanted him to just keep going, in part because their only image of power was based on monarchies.
But great leaders do that — they demand that we leave our comfort zone and expand our thinking to adapt to new realities. Think of Lincoln. FDR. JFK.
So, one George was our first president, and now we have another George as our forty-third president. Now, there’s a coincidence.
More importantly, in all that time between these two men, we have had an election every four years, come hell or high water. The democratic system of government is firmly in place. And, no matter how heated or contested an election has been, we have never had an attempted coup, or bloodshed or violence to determine or even affect an election.
Thus far, we have never elected a despot or an extremist to the office, though some extremists may argue that Lincoln and FDR were both despots. But you have to first consider the times in which these men led before you make judgments about the ways they led.
In the ‘64 election, Barry Goldwater ran with the campaign slogan, “Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice.” Vice or not, it gave Lyndon Johnson one of the great landslide victories of modern times. We Americans have our vices, but we tend not to like extremists.
I thought that this new George’s inaugural speech was okay, but it didn’t make me want to run out and do something civic minded. There were, though, two moments during the proceedings that really ticked me off.
First, we got a campaign full of commitments to unity and inclusion from Bush — even though his speech was bracketed by two ministers. And the first minister just had to appeal to the father, the son and the holy ghost. The second minister, maybe being a bit more moderate, just appealed to Jesus who saves us all.
The problem was that neither of these holy dudes was speaking for me — some inclusion. There are a lot of us Americans who are not Christians. But within that twenty-minute period, Bush had already managed to make me feel somewhat excluded.
Although, to be fair, I have to remind myself that of the forty-three Presidents we have had, there has only been one who was not a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. That was John F. Kennedy, and the fact that he was a Catholic was in fact an issue in the 1960 campaign.
If I ever got elected president, I’ll have one invocation done by a Kyoto monk and the other by a medicine man from Tanzania.
There was, though, one line in George’s speech that I liked. He said that we “should pursue our common good beyond our level of comfort.” I liked that, but wonder if President Bush meant that he would do that himself. Remember these cats who get elected to the highest office in the land are already really rich and powerful. Their comfort zones are so big that it would take somebody like President Bush years just to find where the outside of his comfort zone even began.
That said, this idea of pursuing our common good beyond our level of comfort is, in my mind, a true statement of how real change happens — be it personal change, social change or political change.
Personally, I know that I am in the process of change just about the time when I begin to feel least comfortable. And looking back, I have pursued discomfort most of my life, which has meant a life of constant personal change that has found me involved in larger social change. The fact is that being too comfortable is a slow death. You need to force yourself to get up and do something that takes you out of that comfortable zone.
For instance: a few nights after the inauguration, I was talking to a close family member about my views on our public education system. I generally describe it as being totally corrupt, a system that corrupts even the best people in it. This person, who had once been a teacher, just went off on me about how wrong I was. I finally had to hang up.
To that person, the issue is completely black and white with no real room for discussion or even curiosity about how there could be change. This, I was told, is just the way it is.
That’s a comfort zone I would love to see people step out of: seeing things as either this or that. Personally, I live in a very uncomfortable psychic area called ambiguity. And life is full of it. There are really very few areas that are absolutes.
We get so attached to our opinions and ideologies. Years ago, I lost friends because they didn’t think I was left wing enough. Then, I didn’t make friends because others thought I was too far to the left. You just can’t win ‘em all.
But I have to remember that when I was a young new-leftist revolutionary, I treated people like that, too. Then I realized that by making myself absolutely right and others who didn’t agree with me absolutely wrong, I had done several things that were screwed up.
First, I had presumed that I must be absolutely right. I mean, really, how often can anybody be absolutely right about anything other than their own heart? And we often screw even that up.
But secondly, and most importantly, I had killed any possibility of connecting with that person and working toward a deeper level of understanding.
Now, if you tell me that you are a conservative, I will simply ask you about what is in your heart. Tell me that you are a diehard liberal and I will also ask you what lies in your heart. More often than not with people from both sides of the divide, I find that our heart beliefs have a lot in common. But you can’t know that unless you are willing to leave your comfort zone.
How many people do you not talk to because you have decided they are wrong and not worth your time? Is it your rightness that is at work there, or your fears?
This tendency to need to be right about things sure gets us in trouble. I’ve found that my personal growth has always started at “I don’t know,” or “I wonder why.” The seed of growth is a question; the water that nurtures it is curiosity.
As some of you know, I have been a practicing Buddhist for almost thirty years, beginning back in my years as an acidhead. A favorite quote of mine — and one with which I opened many of the workshops I ran — is by a Zen Monk, Suzuki Roshi.
It goes like this: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many opportunities; in the expert’s, there are few.”
How many opportunities are you going to miss today by believing that you are always right in all things?
So, as our new president suggests, let’s all try to get out of our comfort zones a little bit. In doing so, we may just come to a better understanding of others — and ultimately, of ourselves.