I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.
Barack Obama, The Audacity of HopeI've often thought that one of the most powerful - and least known - speeches of this President is the one he gave at the 2009 Notre Dame graduation (that link is to the transcript, the video is here). In case you've forgotten, his invitation to do so sparked a pretty big controversy over the issues of abortion and stem cell research. And yet, as the Aikido Way requires, he used the opportunity to "enter into the very center of the conflict" by using the divide in this country over these issues to make the same point he did in the quote above.
In this speech, President Obama scrambled the order of storytelling outlined by Marshall Ganz. He began with the "story of now" and the urgency of the tension we face.
For the major threats we face in the 21st century -- whether it’s global recession or violent extremism; the spread of nuclear weapons or pandemic disease -- these things do not discriminate. They do not recognize borders. They do not see color. They do not target specific ethnic groups.President Obama then went on to tell the "story of self" about a time when a constituent called him on his lack of open-mindedness about abortion.
Moreover, no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone. Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and greater understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history. Unfortunately, finding that common ground -- recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a "single garment of destiny" -- is not easy...
The question, then -- the question then is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without, as Father John said, demonetizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?
And of course, nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.
And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that -- when we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe -- that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.Throughout the speech the President reminded the graduates of the "story of us" as it has been demonstrated at Notre Dame. But then he connected that story to one that tied the "us" to a larger one.
I stand here today, as President and as an African American, on the 55th anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Now, Brown was of course the first major step in dismantling the "separate but equal" doctrine, but it would take a number of years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God’s children. There were freedom rides and lunch counters and Billy clubs, and there was also a Civil Rights Commission appointed by President Eisenhower. It was the 12 resolutions recommended by this commission that would ultimately become law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.Finally, he called us to the kind of empathy that he talked about in that first quote up above:
There were six members of this commission. It included five whites and one African American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern governors, the dean of a Southern law school, a Midwestern university president, and your own Father Ted Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame. So they worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would serve the black and white members of the commission together. And finally, when they reached an impasse in Louisiana, Father Ted flew them all to Notre Dame’s retreat in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.
And years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered they were all fishermen. And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.
Remember that each of us, endowed with the dignity possessed by all children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we all seek the same love of family, the same fulfillment of a life well lived. Remember that in the end, in some way we are all fishermen.What he's telling us is that the challenges that encompass the fierce urgency of now will only be faced when we can "try to see the world through George Bush's eyes." That is a high calling for any of us to accept. But it is one this President has answered in the affirmative.