Inaugural Week Meditation: So happy

I’m 52, and I’ve had a great first half-century of life (and am looking forward to the next). But this inaugural week I feel an extraordinary happiness. Younger people can understand it to a great degree, but I think many folks my age and older – Euro American, African American, Latino American, Native American, Asian American – share a sense of joy that is especially hard to explain. (continued after the jump)

I remember being a boy traveling through the south and seeing Jim Crow signs, being part of a church in the 1960’s that would “politely” direct non-whites to another church down the road, listening as a Sunday School teacher explained “the curse of Ham” and what it meant for our lives, hearing respected adults – all committed churchgoers — use the “N” word and other epithets without any hesitation, hearing a beloved relative call Dr. King a “communist” and a “devil.”
To think that in our lifetime, millions of white voters joined with African Americans, Latinos, and others to elect Barack Obama … I’m so happy. I’m happy when my eyes meet the eyes of a brown-skinned Muslim neighbor in a store, and we both smile and let the contact linger a little longer than usual, and he says, “Yes we can!” I reply in kind. I’m happy when I watch the TV news and see news anchors unable to restrain their pride in America – there’s a time to be “objective” and a time to be a human being whose emotions can’t be contained.
I think about my travels over the last few years – getting a feeling for how America was perceived in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa – and I feel happy that we didn’t disappoint our global neighbors in this election as they feared we might. I think of a moment in East Africa last summer, at an outdoor gathering that was interrupted by a thunderstorm, chasing about fifty Africans plus me to cram under a shelter that had room for maybe twenty-five as the rains poured down. A young fellow asked if I was American and I said yes. Then he said one tentative word, phrased as a question: Obama? I said, “Go Obama!” and made a thumbs up sign with both hands. The whole crowd started applauding and shouting over the sound of the rain, Go Obama! The young man said, “We very happy. We hope Obama win.” And he did. I’m happy for those strangers and millions more like them who feel that this time America voted in the global interest, not just the American one.
I’m happy for Dr. King and all those who marched, suffered, and sacrificed with him, dreaming of a day when the content of a man’s character counted for more than the color of his skin. I’m happy that, although we have a long way to go, his dream just took a step toward coming true. I’m happy for children, African Americans especially — but all young people of every race, who have a smart, passionate, ethical, and honest role model to emulate, to inspire their dreams of what they can become “when they grow up.” I’m happy for Malia and Sasha – for what they’re going to see and experience and become in the years ahead, and I’m happy for Michelle, for the influence she will have, a remarkable leader in her own right.
I’m happy for the children and their parents and grandparents who are waking up today in our world’s saddest and scariest places – whether in the Middle Eastern crescent that runs from Gaza to Mumbai, or the African crescent that runs from Darfur to Zimbabwe: maybe, just maybe, we have found a leader with whom we can work together globally to get breakthroughs for peace where there have been deadlocks of violence for so long. That’s my prayer.
I’m happy for the endangered species, for the coral reefs, for the rainforests, the mountains, in hopes that in the coming years, we’ll turn a corner from a consumptive, extractive, destructive economy towards not just a sustainable economy but a truly regenerative one. I’m not happy for the economic suffering that is rising like warming oceans around the world, but I am happy that we have the chance to do something better than fix the current system: this crisis gives us the chance to imagine and create a better economy that will bring a better deal for the poor and for the planet long term. I’m happy we have elected a president who is open to thinking in those terms.
I’m happy for our churches too, and our mosques and synagogues and other places of worship and reverence. Someday, perhaps we’ll know whether the culture wars that have divided us for decades were more a matter of partisan political strategists exploiting religion, or partisan religious leaders exploiting politics. Be that as it may, I’m happy that just maybe, people of faith will join in and contribute to the change in tone that the Obama administration is working to achieve … so we can differ graciously when we must differ, and collaborate robustly when we can collaborate for the common good.
I’m happy that I have had the chance to be part of this moment in history. I think of my friends in South Africa who watched the impossible happen, as Nelson Mandela first was released from prison, then raised an open hand and not a vengeful fist, then was elected president of a nation scarred by apartheid, and then led the nation into a messy but necessary process of healing. I’m happy to think that this is our moment, pregnant with a similar hope. I wonder if this hope can be contagious, and I believe it can, since we just caught it ourselves.
I just keep breaking into smiles. I can’t help it. Mockers will mock and cynics will shake their heads. But I’m unashamedly happy. There will be many disappointments, dangers, toils, and snares ahead, no doubt. But this is a good week in my life, and my happiness makes me both thankful for where we’ve come from and prayerful for where we need to go now.

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