Humility and gratitude ground us. These, of course, are feelings unfamiliar to revolutionaries – those who would destroy the institutions of the past, who see in them nothing of value, in their heroes nothing to be esteemed, in their rituals and duties nothing to be respected. Listening to Obama drone on tonight, my husband and I found ourselves wandering around the house, too jumpy to sit.
But gratitude grounds – and is often an appropriate feeling, even as we renovate. I’ve seldom liked my doctors. And, sure, I figure they do more tests than they need. But I’m grateful, nonetheless. They do those tests because they can, because they may be sued, because they are paid, but most often because they want to know what’s wrong, what’s working. The whole world rides on the rails our procedures, machines, drugs, knowledge lay for them. Newt Gingrich speaks of potential cures for Alzheimer’s. As more of us have aged, we see such a cure would save incredible heart break but also incredible costs. And it would increase productivity from those with a life time of experience and thought. But Gingrich speaks with that zest, that optimism that characterizes the self-reliant, the libertarian right. And it isn’t that we can’t see huge changes in a short time as disease after disease has lost some of its power.
Without gratitude, we don’t have the context for a buoyant “I can.” In Obama’s mouth the sentiment seems thin. In the mouth of a doer, it resonates. Instead of standing with a leader’s pride in his country – its past and its people – he speaks of leveling and of the choices of others that are better. Sure, medicine, indeed about everything in our society, could stand improvement. And comparison with others is useful, sensible. But if we don’t acknowledge what is good than how are we going to pare away what is bad? Destroying both the institutions of the church and of the state didn’t lead to all that idyllic a life under Napoleon.
And, today, an appropriate gratitude seens missing in our leaders. But Honduras can show us why it is appropriate. There, a people understnd the nature of democracy – it isn’t one election, but a harmonious and regular (and regulated) series. In this country we increasingly forget that old holiday of Washington’s birthday. Perhaps that in itself isn’t important – but we should never forget his integrity, his leadership; most of all, there is his humility which led him to cheerfully give up power – believing his country’s embryonic government defined a role more important than he was (a man who might be forgiven pride). Honduras understood Washington, understood our model better than we do. We have forgotten that gratitude – certainly, our President, our State Department have, as we see their threats of sanctions, their proposals of shared governancy. Indeed, this would be true even if the latest news, that the results of the election were calculated before the votes would have been cast, were not true. It probably is – and the Hondurans really knew their man – and that calling a ritual an election doesn’t make it one.
Today, too, we see a letter: the Czechs, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, the Poles – and all those many others who’ve seen so many armies march across their lands in the last century – they, too, understand those ideals. They express gratitude, reminding us of our own best selves. So, they tell us: We have worked to reciprocate and make this relationship a two-way street. We are Atlanticist voices within NATO and the EU. Our nations have been engaged alongside the United States in the Balkans, Iraq, and today in Afghanistan. But in the last months that “Atlanticist voice” has been muted here, its representatives treated shabbily.
These people know gratitude because they haven’t forgotten history:
Our nations are deeply indebted to the United States. Many of us know firsthand how important your support for our freedom and independence was during the dark Cold War years. U.S. engagement and support was essential for the success of our democratic transitions after the Iron Curtain fell twenty years ago. Without Washington’s vision and leadership, it is doubtful that we would be in NATO and even the EU today.
As misguided as we may think the EU is, we can see within this letter an appreciation of history: a recognition it foretells as well as records. And we lose our sense of connection, our humility, our gratitude at our own peril. And in the case of a nation with our strength, at the peril of those who looked to us – people who know what democracy is in Honduras and know what freedom is in Central Europe.
(By the way, it’s always the personal with me, I guess. But this wasn’t a great letter to read the day my middle daughter phoned, needing a copy of her birth certificate before she gets her long-term visa: her husband will be doing research on his dissertation in Brno for the next year and a half; they are shipping over at the end of August. And, not surprisingly, I’d prefer thinking of a real and a metaphorical shield over my daughter and her quite nice husband.)