My New Year’s Greeting: Thanks for Being You

Upon you rest many of my hopes for 2019 and beyond.

Your better instincts and willingness to pitch in, help and serve others, whether in your home, community or job, counts—and counts a lot—especially in these uncertain times. Why? Because it is always the combined efforts of the many that make up a viable society, provide its main resources and produce its primary outputs, both spiritual and material. When we act with virtue and integrity, no cabal of individual actors, no matter how powerful or bad, can long exert control over the people we want to be.

Still, as 2018 began heading toward the holidays, I must confess that sullenness—not good cheer—gripped me. My wife once defined me as a short-run pessimist and a long-run optimist. The latter attitude was missing more than usual. My feelings stretched from guilt to despair.

The guilt came from recognizing that I was shielded from much of the pain being imposed on others. I’m not struggling daily for survival in Syria nor trapped in the endless fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq. In this country, I don’t live in an area with limited opportunity and am not prevented, as are many civil servants and private-sector workers, from speaking truth to power or simply doing my job.

Many people close to me are threatened. If not physically, then with having their efforts disdained, their legacies thrust aside. Despite this, they soldier on. One good friend, Sakena Yacoobi, has now spent decades supporting schools, clinics and other institutions for girls in Afghanistan. Friends in Turkey have devoted their lives to teaching students how to thrive in what they believed was an increasingly modern democracy. My colleagues in government, where I spent much of my career, continue to push for policy based on principle, not whim or special interests.

When you care about others, you want to support their efforts and carry some of their pain.

Here I sit, though, separated from attacks and asked to sacrifice little or nothing by my elected representatives. I’m pampered with unneeded tax cuts and ever-rising health and retirement benefits, even as government invests an ever-smaller share of our growing resources in the future of our children. These elected officials dodge a basic rule most of us teach to our children: that with opportunity, whether earned or unearned, comes responsibility. The more demagogic of this elected base further tell me that solving any and all of our problems will come only from attacking immigrants, the rich, foreigners, or anyone who represents “other.”

Despair then arises from seeing no immediate end to this nastiness, and to the costs imposed on those still working to build a successful society abroad or a more unified one at home.

More recently, a new season of hope has begun to surround me, as it often does this time of year. People have extra energy in their gait; strangers greet me with a nod and a smile. Wonderful friends, both near and far, regale me with stories of their own journeys, and I bask in the love of family.

I see how you continue to dedicate yourself to doing the right thing, to sharing your resources, and maintaining your integrity in efforts large and small. When I once expressed my despair for Afghanistan to my friend Sakena, she told me that her people couldn’t go back to where they were 17 years ago. She felt that too many additional women, as well as men, have been educated in the interim, and, whatever else happens, they cannot unlearn what they have learned. Now, that’s hope.

So, Happy New Year to all of you. And thanks, once again, for renewing my hope in our future.