Sunday, 8 January 2017

Reflections on a high school commencement address & today's politics, or, where a Republican senator hands me a guiding principle for life

I woke up this morning thinking about someone I haven't thought about in decades - John Danforth, retired Republican senator from Missouri. As the morning went on, I thought of him more, not less.

Weird, huh? Maybe not so much, since he was the father of D.D. Danforth, who was in my year at school - so yeah, my dirty little secret, for those of you who might not have guessed, is that I went to a posh private school, alongside the daughters of senators and kings (Hussein of Jordan).

I'll never forget seeing him come to school, taking the steps 2 and 3 at a time from car park to the main door of the school. My 'Hello, Senator!' always met with a smile and gracious 'hello' back, no matter how much of a hurry he was in. I liked him; even in our brief encounters, you could feel the integrity and the calm around him, the exact opposite of my father; I often wondered what he'd be like as a dad.

Those occasional brief encounters occurred for years - then, he spoke at our graduation...and it changed my life. I had that commencement speech on my wall for years, with sections underlined and starred, until it fell apart; I'd love to have it again now. I'm pretty sure he began with congratulating us, telling us how we were all being applauded, and rightly so, graduating was quite an achievement. But then.


He told us that we would be applauded throughout our lives, but our real job was not to seek that applause. *Our real job was to go out and GIVE it - to everyone around us: our friends, lovers, children, colleagues.* His last line was for us to go out there and 'Start clapping. Never stop.' I can't speak for anyone else at our graduation, but I could feel the electricity of truth run through me and, in that moment, I swore I would do that; that I would hold up those around me however I could. That principle was diametrically opposed to my parents' 'People are commodities to be used for your benefit,' but John Danforth's speech spoke to MY integrity; it pointed due North and let me find my way.

This morning, it struck me: *one of the guiding principles of my life was handed to me by a Republican senator*.

And I finally understood - I'm not just incandescent with rage, I am grieving. I am grieving the loss of men like John Danforth from our political scene. The loss of the Republican party that could be home to men like him. The loss of our common vision for a better nation and world, even if we disagree on the how. The loss of our ability to trust and talk to each other, to reach the compromises we need to go forward.

I am a diehard Dem - but had John Danforth run in 2000, I can't say whom I'd have voted for. And had he run and won, my heart would have been happy - because I would have known I could entrust my country to the hands of this man who understood the meaning of service - not just as a senator, but as a priest.

That is what we all need to move back towards, whatever our calling in life - a sense of service, an orientation towards the greater good. Haven't our decades of obsession with ourselves shown us that selfishness leaves us empty and brings disaster upon our heads? That connection and service bring us joy? That we need the balance of turning inward for contemplation and self-examination, then turning back outward to offer the fruits of that contemplation as service to others, to pour out our lives as a libation, and in doing so, move the world towards wholeness?

And where is that sense of service more needed than in those who serve our communities and nations? Even if they differ in the how, the why - the greater good of humanity - must be the same. So let us commit ourselves to unseating those obsessed with exalting themselves and oppressing others and seating those committed to the greater good - whatever their party affiliation.

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