August 4th is Barack Obama’s birthday. If you could offer him any gift, what would it be? Something big? Something radical?
Back in 2008 he was the proud owner of something really precious – a vision that inspired people. “Yes we can” meant, to me, faith in the possibility of real transformation, of making life in the US work so much better for people, of making the US presence in the world a source of pride for all of us.
Like many who had hopes for change during Obama’s campaign, I’ve grieved over disappointments during his presidency. The spark of “Yes we can” that was so real in 2008 became drone wars, Wall Street in charge of bailouts, 2 million deported immigrants, more tortures than under Bush, and compromise instead of leadership.
Still, I believe that the visionary spark in a human being never gets fully stamped out. Have you ever had an experience – running into an old friend when you least expect it, or coming across an old letter – that shocked you into remembering a former dream? If I could give any birthday present to a person whose actions affect all of us, and whose vision I want to support, I’d want to give him that kind of reminder.
My book Reweaving Our Human Fabric concludes with a series of social science fiction stories, set in a future society that does not use money, coercion, or punishment. Instead, everything is decided collaboratively, based on the core principle of attending to as many needs as possible, for as many people as possible, with as little suffering as possible.
And for today, I’ve written another story – this time set in the present.
If you agree that it makes a good birthday present, you can send him a link to this post via the White House contact page.
Outside, the crowds had gathered. The TV cameras had been set up. Everything was ready. He was nearing the end of his second term, and it had become almost routine for him to step outside to the balcony, to meet the cheering crowds, to look into the cameras without blinking, to read his premade speech he and everyone else knew would not mean a thing, and then to go back inside to the many impossible decisions he had to make.
He had that speech ready. He had gone over it with the speechwriter several times, making minor changes here and there to words and phrases that made no essential difference. He had rehearsed it again and again. He knew he could sound natural, warm, almost inspiring. He was so adept at playing the orchestrated part of the man believed by many to be the most powerful in the world.
On the line was something entirely else, something he had dreamed of for decades, well before announcing his candidacy. It would be a whole other speech which no one would write for him; a speech he would make up as he went, about a truth that wasn’t being spoken. And it could easily cost him his life; that was not lost on him.
Once upon a time, he believed he could do something. Change. Making a difference. Those words used to mean something to him. He knew others before him had given up. He never thought it would happen to him. If Mandela could, why couldn’t he? Now, he could no longer bear the sound of those words, not even inside his head. How did it happen? How did he give up? Was it the clear and chilling almost-in-so-many-words warning that if he departed from what was expected of him “too much” – which was never quantified – then he would be taken out of commission? Was it the dull lack of vision all around him?
And he didn’t wake up on his own, either. Which on some level he knew was OK, and yet it still bothered him. It was only two weeks ago when an email was forwarded to him. It was written in such clear, simple, open, human language, that everyone who read it couldn’t decide what to do with it, couldn’t just discard it or send a formal reply, and passed it on up for decision. Until it got to him. No one else to pass it on to, and so he said yes, and arranged for a meeting with the woman who wrote it. She offered her heart, and spoke to his soul. Her email made him think, uncomfortably, about his remaining days in office. She was right, he didn’t want to go down in history the way he had been acting. His one big initiative was watered down before even introducing it anywhere. Everything else, he himself knew, was no different in any essential way from his predecessors. She was right, and he couldn’t deny it, and so he met with her.
Braced for a diatribe, a condemnation, a harsh critique, he was met, instead, with kindness beyond measure. It was excruciating, because in her infinite tenderness, in her gentle, warm, green eyes, he could not hide. Not once did he say one word he didn’t mean. He couldn’t remember the last time he had such a conversation. She heard and understood. She didn’t judge, not one of his choices. And so he spoke. He canceled meetings, important meetings, so he could stay and stay with her. She listened. And she kept looking at him with such softness, as if he hadn’t killed thousands; as if he hadn’t authorized measures that continued to destroy the planet and its inhabitants, human and others; as if he hadn’t backed out of almost all he had promised; as if he hadn’t given up ever. Then he cried, for a long time. And then he felt clearer than ever, for the first time he could remember since election time.
Not that he knew what to do. Only that he knew he couldn’t go on as if all was essentially OK. He couldn’t one more time hear himself say the things that were grating on his soul. He couldn’t continue to pretend he believed in the official story, not even his own version of it.
Clean and fresh, in grief and gratitude, he then asked her to speak. What did she know? What did she want? Why did she come? And, more than anything, what could he do? She didn’t say much. First she thanked him, and he had to admit he had made the choice to see her, and that must mean something, some way, even a small way, in which he hadn’t given up all the way. He showed up, and she was there to see it. Then she offered him her vision of what the world could look like. A simple and elegant vision. She spoke of a world that works for everyone, where everyone is valued, where all basic needs are attended to, where systems are structured to support humans and all life, not for gain or control. She told him he had a true role to play, and that’s why she contacted him. She gave him information and people to speak with. She said what he already knew, affirming what he had dreamed of and lost touch with before: that he was blessed to be someone who could make a dent, who could get humanity out of the collision course that started when we decided, somehow, that we were no longer going to be part of nature, that we were better, that we could make the laws of nature instead of honoring them. All he needed to do, she concluded, looking him straight in the eye, sharp and graceful, loving and fierce, was to tell the truth. He had to lead, to care for the whole, for everyone and everything, no matter the cost. Before leaving, she offered him, and he accepted, a hug. She held him for a few long minutes, and he let her. He cried again, this time in gratitude and loss, knowing somehow he was never going to see her again. Maybe she didn’t even fully exist, he wondered after she had left.
He didn’t wait one extra second before summoning all the people she had mentioned to a meeting. Of course he had been getting briefings all along about climate change, top soil erosion, water shortage, poverty, refugees. It was an ongoing part of his job to have his finger on the pulse. This was different. These people didn’t have jobs that depended on his approval. They answered all his questions without flinching. There was no possibility of delusion. And the problems were not separate. And they all pointed to a need for change way beyond buying hybrid cars. There was no way to keep the system going. And they showed him what no briefing had before: the possibilities, the alternative technologies, the tools for collaboration, the paths beyond separation and consumption. It was all possible. All that was needed was political will. And there was no delaying, either, for some future people who would be more brave and willing than he was. Because the stakes were just too high. It was his turn, his chance.
* * *
His chief of staff came looking for him. “Everything OK?”. He nodded casually, not letting out any signal of turmoil or indecision. He didn’t say: “I might just be about to take my one chance of changing the course of history before I get killed for doing it.” Instead, he said, warm and confident despite his accelerated heartbeat: “I’ll be right there.” And he smiled. And then he knew he would do it, that he had just decided, and there was no turning back, no matter what would happen.
The first few steps to his shrinking future looked the same. He walked steadily, the way he always did. He walked to where he always stood. He looked at the cheering crowds, oblivious to what was coming. He stepped towards the microphone and cleared his throat.
He took one more look at everyone around him, at all the people he loved and at those he didn’t like. No matter. He was their leader, all of them. The old and the young, the female and the male. The ones in prison and those in the military. The students and the teachers. His supporters and his opponents. This one time, while he still could, he was offering them all he had, unrehearsed. It took everyone a few seconds before they could grasp what was happening.
“I am not going to speak to the topic you all came here to hear,” he began, his mouth suddenly getting dry, his heart beating so fast he thought it would affect his voice, and his spirit soaring in gratitude. “I am here to tell you what you already know, what I know, what we have all known for some time now and have not wanted to look at. I am here to tell you we cannot go on like we have been.” The silence deepened and thickened. He wondered how long it would take before he would get shot, and would he manage to get all his words out. He wanted to have a chance to sign one more executive order.
“If I manage to get alive out of this speech,” he continued, “my next and last major initiative is to invite all the people of the world to participate in figuring out, together, how to get out of the mess that we have created. I cannot solve this problem by myself or with a small group of people in power. We are all needed.”
The fear had left him entirely. In its wake, an intoxicating sense of freedom. No one could stop him now; not without killing him, that is. He wanted to savor it, as if with all his senses, as fresh as a drop of dew off a blade of grass in the very early morning hours, before the sun is even fully out. He could almost lick it.
“There is so much we need to change, and all of us will be stretched in ways we never imagined possible yet always dreamed of.” Without warning, a searing pain almost took away his breath. He could have done this earlier, when people had some hope left in them, when “change” and “empathy” and “Yes we can” could still mobilize someone to do something. Would there even be enough left for any action to happen? There was no way to know, and that didn’t matter. All he was told to do, all he could do now, all that was needed in this exact moment was for him to tell the truth. He could do that, even with the pain. And so on he went.
“There will be fear,” he said, so gently, the microphone almost didn’t pick up his voice. “There will be fear, and there will be discomfort. It is not going to be convenient to change course.” He didn’t want to say “but”, because he wanted the weight of that knowledge to reverberate, to stay in the air, to be beheld in its truth. The pause was enough. “There will also be freedom beyond your wildest dreams.” His voice was rising as he was finding his stride. “There will be a restored sense of community. We will prevail, because we are a nation of greatness, and we know how to rise to the occasion in times of crisis.” No room for any illusion now, it must all be clear. “I say again: there will be sacrifices, and there will be love and joy, because we will call on our moral imagination, on a conviction beyond party or race, that making things work for all is possible, is more important than protecting our comforts.” How could he possibly give them, all at once, the massive amounts of information that he now knew and most of them didn’t? “There is so much you don’t know because, in our fear and folly, we have withheld it from you. No more. I hereby authorize the release of all government documents that contain information relevant to the scope of our challenge. I call on all private enterprises to follow suit and embrace full transparency. We are, as some of you perhaps know, close to the point of no return, and this is our hour.”
They were all looking at him, no, looking to him, waiting for something he couldn’t give them. Didn’t he tell them already that everyone was needed, that he didn’t know what to do? Where would there be support for him? He had a flash of feeling sorry for himself, for his unspeakable exhaustion, for the threats, the weight of it all. He wanted someone to tell him everything would be OK, except nothing was ever going to be OK unless… What a nightmare! He was still in the middle, he couldn’t just wait and wait, he had to speak again, and for the moment, he didn’t yet know what to say next. Sweat was dripping on his body, still trim despite the harsh demands he was making on it. No, he was no longer afraid of death or ridicule. His fear, almost panic, was that he just didn’t have what it took after all, which led him, for the first time since starting, to glance to the right, where his beloved wife, his conscience, stood. The only one whose approval truly mattered at this point. Only he could see her imperceptible affirmation, as if to remind him: you don’t have to know the answer, only to tell the truth, all of it.
“This is not about austerity measures for the many while the few continue to amass riches. It is also not about the nostalgic idea of restoring the dream of the American middle class. All of this is over. No one is too big or too small to make dramatic shifts in how we operate. We cannot keep the American Dream. We cannot continue to aspire for accumulation without limits. We must find a new dream, something else to live for.” Finally there was a rush of unease in the audience. Did they not understand before that this was about everyone, every single one of them? Oh, how could he even think of standing above them in any way? He, the one who let them down, who let the world down, who took so long to move. It was time to take responsibility.
“I have let you down. I have promised change, and I didn’t deliver. I was afraid, I am no different from you. And here I am telling you more than an inconvenient truth: everything you’ve been told for at least a hundred years is false. Every bit of it. We are not the happiest nation in the world. We don’t have the best health care. We certainly don’t have the best education. We are just the biggest consumers, the biggest extractors of resources from all over the world, and the scariest military power, the only country that ever used nuclear bombs.” His voice rose in intensity, unpleasant in his ears, shrill, like he was trying to convince them of something.
“We have acted as if leadership means telling everyone else what to do. As if all the other countries in the world are there for us. Let us, instead, step solemnly into the true nature of leadership, where we care for all of life. We have brought hunger, poverty, and disease to untold numbers of people, starting here, on our land, when people first came here from Europe. And we have treated the planet as if it’s infinite and belongs to us. Let us now set the record straight. We belong to earth. We belong to each other. Let us assume our responsibility, starting with me and my administration. Let us now bring hope and possibility to the world. Yes we can.”
Maybe he would manage to finish, after all, he was so close to the end. “We can because all we need, every bit of necessary technology, already exists. We can because although we must forego material comforts, we will now be wholehearted. We can because it’s the right thing. We can because the whole world will cheer us on. We can because once we decide that our collective human life is precious, our creativity will know no bounds. We can because, despite everything, we are, indeed, still a great nation.”
The speech ended. The cheering resumed. No bullet, still. He didn’t know who to trust, who could be an advisor in this critical moment. What irony. He hadn’t even considered the possibility of surviving this speech and being called upon to deliver. It may be just a few more hours, or he may have the rest of his term. Whatever it is, he had stepped forward. He was, finally, the leader he always wanted to be, the leader that his speeches led others to believe he already was. He would never turn back again.
Inside, the chief of staff was waiting, alert, available, a bit unsure of herself. He felt for her. This was not the job she had signed up for. Would she quit now? Would everyone? No matter. If life went on, there would still be endless meetings, with the same old people, and with new people he would now meet, people whose expertise, whose hope, heart, and wisdom would suddenly be welcome. There would still be decisions to make, orders to sign, actions to take. And there would still be legislation, and executive orders, and travel. And it was all so much simpler now. No more shows, no more words that mean nothing, no more hiding. Only the truth. And he was ready.
* * *
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