Dear Xavier and Nyree,
This won’t be the first letter I’ve written to you both, but it will be the first one that’s public – and may be the first one you ever see, since the rest are hidden away for when you’re older. First, let me say how proud you both make me and your dad. I loved the years when you were just babies, but I’m deeply gratified and enjoying you so much as you get older. I’m so proud to see the kind and conscientious humans you are growing into. Because the truth is, in a world that can seem so cruel, violent and relentless some days, growing up good isn’t always easy.
I’m not one wringing my hands about the state of the world today, you know that about me. I don’t believe it’s a helpful way to view the world, because it signals a sense of helplessness and lack of responsibility for addressing the problems that face us. And unfortunately, we Americans are good at blaming each other for the problems we face. I’m writing this letter because we DO face challenges, and there are things I want you to know that I may not always communicate as clearly as I should. So here goes.
The world IS a challenging place. It always has been. And in many ways we are so much better off than the generations that came before us, especially here in America. But measures of well being can’t be confined to how wealthy you – or your nation – are. It can’t be confined just to whether you can afford to feed and house YOUR family.
We face big challenges here at home and abroad, from conflict, to food insecurity, to social and political cleavages, to climate change. Some of these problems come from the very fact that we’ve become too focused on our own well-being and not focused enough on our neighbors and fellow citizens. We are headed for many more years of crisis – if history is anything to judge by. Walking through the Smithsonian Museum of American History in DC with you both a few weeks ago was a painful reminder of how many similarities exist today to the pre-Civil War era in America – given the depth of divisions driving political narratives right now, the rise in hate crime, and deep seated fear and anger plaguing people across our union. As these divisions deepen, we have a choice to arm ourselves, create survival pods and become even more tribal in our perspectives about each other – OR to look for solutions that promote ways for us to better understand each other and to co-exist, despite our differences.
But. No hand wringing. Why? Because hand wringing doesn’t create solutions.
If there is one thing I want to impart on each of you as you grow up it is this. Criticizing others and complaining is easy and ubiquitous. However, being a part of the solution is hard – and more rare. There is no one person, political party, or leader that can solve the problems that face us. We all must seek to be problem solvers. There are people out there every day giving it their all to find those solutions. But there are also those who make these problems worse. What separates one from the other? The solvers and the trouble-makers? It's their ability to look beyond their own desires and ambitions and make decisions that are in the best interest of everyone, not just themselves. Whether it’s a President who makes an unpopular decision, but one they know will save lives in the long run, or the person who hates wearing masks but wears one anyway to ensure that they don’t put the lives of people around them at risk. On the flipside, there are people who seek to capitalize on others' misery, on dishonest information, and on narratives driven by ignorance that do real world harm to their fellow citizens. Some categorize their right to do these things as freedom, but if it continues, freedom will be short lived. Responsibility to others is key to a functioning society. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean it’s the right or responsible thing to do.
Being responsible to each other means looking past our differences and caring for each other anyway. It means thinking about the consequences of our actions. From those everyday decisions like whether to open another plastic bottle of water, rather than drinking from a more sustainable source to big picture decisions like creating health or voting laws that actively harm people because it's politically expedient rather than standing up to bigotry and ignorance, even if it costs you re-election.
As you grow up, you’ll likely think big thoughts about how you can change the world. It’s a common – and generally wonderful – trait in this idealistic family you were born into. But idealism is dangerous when approached with dogmatic rigidity. It has started wars and led to genocides. We should all work towards better, but we must be realistic about what that means. This life was not meant to be perfect and it never will be. We will never be finished with the work of creating a more perfect union, life, or world. A functioning society calls for incremental change and solutions that seek to compromise with those of opposing viewpoints. We don’t all have the same ideals – nor do we need to. It takes all kinds of people, from artists to soldiers, scientists to plumbers, teachers to business people, police to activists, lawmakers to landscapers to make a functioning society. We all have value.
If I teach you nothing else, I hope that you will always do these things to make the world a better place:
- Put responsibility to others above blind ambition. And when you seek to rise to the top, do not do so at the expense of others. Seek to show true leadership, create opportunities for others to grow and bring as many along with you as possible.
- Before you complain and apportion blame, ask yourself how you would address the situation. How would you realistically solve the problem – or seek to make it better? Would you make a better decision or seek a better solution than the one you are blaming someone else for? How? (And really think that through – think about how complex some of today’s problems are – ask yourself how you’d approach this if it were your responsibility). Ask yourself how you can be part of the solution.
- Before you see someone as a liberal or conservative, black or white, rich or poor, citizen or immigrant; ask yourself – what might I have in common with this person? How can I make their day a little better?
- And, before you become sad and anxious because the bullets and bombs are loud and seemingly everywhere, always remember, “love is quieter – but there’s far more of it.”
This life, our country, and this world is truly what we make it. But we don’t do it alone. Every day we reap the benefits of the efforts of our fellow citizens, our ancestors, and people in far flung places that we’ll never meet. We can rise to meet the challenges that face us, but only if we rise together.
With all my love,