The Heart of America

imgres-1The heart of America has never been more visible than it was on September 11, 2001.

Tim Love, then Vice President of Saatchi and Saatchi, was in his office that morning and watched the planes attack. As the towers started to come down, he called me to say we had to do something.

We quickly decided we would make a pin out of the Heart of America Foundation’s (HOA) logo with the intent of selling it to benefit the relief effort. Tim said he would seek the support of the AdCouncil and designed a campaign to “Fight Hate with Love.”

Another friend, Robert Brooks, formerly with Procter & Gamble, opened a door at Hallmark. Hallmark agreed to sell the pins to support the effort. With the campaign in progress, my wife and I went to New York to assess the situation and see what we could do to help.

For those who weren’t there, there is no way to adequately describe the reality of Ground Zero at that time. The sheer enormity of the destruction was staggering. The damage done in human terms was even harder to comprehend.

The recovery site covered l6 acres. You could smell it for blocks before you could see it.   Along the way, every storefront and fence seemed to have been converted into a billboard. Signs and banners, flags and letters of support for the rescue workers were everywhere.

A makeshift memorial had been created for the families of those who lost loved ones at the World Trade Center on the east side of the recovery site. For many at this time, this was the only place they had to go.

Hundreds of Teddy Bears were stacked along the wall of the public park that had come to be known as Winter Garden. Each Teddy bore the name of someone lost. Flowers and personal mementos had been placed on and around the stuffed animals. Photographs and poignant letters from loved ones were posted nearby.

As we walked the sacred ground, many tragic images were burned into our minds, but the image that will endure is the stuff that heroes are made of. It is the memory of men in uniform – rescue workers and medical technicians – methodically moving through the destruction sorting through mountains of debris.

It was as if the planes that struck New York, Washington and Pennsylvania opened a window to the soul of America. Heroes emerged from the shadows. They did what they were called to do – and what they were called to do was often nothing more than their jobs. It was the extraordinary ordinariness of their efforts that was most compelling.

They had no grand designs or elaborate plans. The scope of their effort was the length of their arms. Their long-term plan extended no further than carrying the nearest burden. Yet, in the process of simply doing what needed to be done, millions of pounds of concrete, metal, and glass, were moved, one piece at a time.

In the months that followed, seventy percent of all Americans made a contribution to the relief effort – a response unprecedented in world history.  More than 60 percent of all Americans made a financial contribution to the relief effort.  Many others volunteered time, gave blood, opened their homes, and contributed household items and necessary supplies.

When all was said and done, the isolated acts of a dozen men driven by hate were overwhelmed by thousands of acts of kindness and compassion.  It is often said, “We are at our best when things are the worst.”  That was certainly the case here.  It was our finest hour.

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The Land of Opportunity

imgresOne hundred years before the Mayflower, the French had already begun looking for fame and fortune in the New World, working the cod banks off Nova Scotia. The Spaniards, led by the Italian Christopher Columbus, were not far behind.

A full eight inches taller than the average Spaniard of his day with flowing red hair and exuberant ways, Columbus must have looked as odd as his notion of sailing west to deliver a letter to the Grand Khan of China. The voyage was thought to be impractical, dangerous, and expensive.

“Everyone to whom I spoke of this enterprise thought it a mere jest,” he said.

But the promise of El Dorado was enticing enough that Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were finally persuaded to finance an exploratory expedition. On August 2, 1492, Columbus and his crew went on board for confession and set sail with the tide “for gospel and for gold.”

Columbus and his crew sailed through August and September across what was then called the Sea of Gloom without finding any of the islands they expected. As they entered October, his crew and the captains of the other two ships begged him to turn back.

On October 11, Columbus wrote in his ship’s log he “prayed mightily to the Lord.” The following day he sighted land, now known as San Salvador in the Bahamas.   From there, Columbus went on to explore Haiti and Cuba before heading back to tell what he had found, bringing with him samples of spice and gold.

His patrons were so impressed that Columbus was given a fleet of l7 ships for his second voyage. Rumors of gold leaked out and a desperate rush of would-be adventurers began to besiege him for space on his ships.

“Not a man,” Columbus said, “down to the very tailors does not beg to be allowed to become a discoverer.”

About a hundred years later, the British celebrated the return of Sir Francis Drake from an expedition that had taken him to Brazil, Chile, and Peru. Drake brought back so much plunder his flagship could barely list into port. His success fueled the vision of a New World of unbounded virgin land and untold riches.

As a result, the London Company, a commercial trader, financed a British expedition to America. Intent on settling to the north of the Spanish and the south of the French, they came up the Chesapeake Bay and entered the James River in what is modern day Virginia. With that, the longest and most determined gold rush in history began, but it would not find full expression until the Republic was formed and the power of the people unleashed.

“The discovery of America opened a thousand new paths to fortune, and led obscure adventurers to wealth and power,” de Tocqueville would say of that time. “In America, every one finds facilities unknown elsewhere for maintaining or increasing his fortune. The spirit of gain is always on the stretch.”

The pursuit of happiness is one of the inalienable rights upon which this country rests. In the words of James Adams, “The whole American Dream has been based on the chance to get ahead, for one’s self or one’s children.”

Opportunity comes from liberty and is made possible by equality. When fed by ambition and sustained by courage, the pursuit of happiness has limitless possibilities.

At the same time, we must recognize the happiness of some has always been purchased at the expense of others. It is a story as old and as shameful as our treatment of Native Americans and as recent as the current as the plague of corporate greed. There are always those who cannot see beyond their immediate personal interests without concern for the broader consequences of their actions.

Though they compel our attention, fill our courts, and challenge our sense of justice, these people are the exception and not the rule. Intuitively, most people know the single-minded pursuit of self-interest cannot be sustained in a democracy. It corrodes the foundation on which it rests.

America is the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases that frame our society and support that purpose still resonate today. They remind us of who we are, what we stand for, and what we will die for.

In the words of Lyndon B. Johnson, they are “a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in man’s possession; it cannot be found in his power, or his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others.”

To de Tocqueville’s aristocratic eyes, the spectacle of men and women liberated to make their own destiny must have seemed a bit unsettling.

“As they are always dissatisfied with the position which they occupy,” he wrote, “and are always free to leave it, they think of nothing but the means of changing their fortunes, or increasing it. To minds thus predisposed, every new method which leads by a shorter road to wealth, every machine which spares labor, every instrument which diminishes the cost of production, every discovery which facilitates pleasures or augments them, seems to be the grandest effort of the human intellect.”

The rich and powerful, like de Tocqueville, are satisfied with their lot and do not leave it. The promise of America is for the rest of us: we who dream of a better life. The inscription of the Statute of Liberty is the best evidence of this fact.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the inscription reads, “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

The “golden door” Liberty refers to is the entrance to New York Harbor. The Statue of Liberty, a gift of friendship from the people of France commemorating the 100th anniversary of American independence, stands there welcoming all who come to that harbor.

The sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, said the Statue was intended to be “an immense and impressive symbol of human liberty.” It was certainly that for the millions of immigrants, who came to America during the last two centuries seeking freedom and the opportunity to make their dreams come true.

Four years after the Statue of Liberty was erected, nearby Ellis Island was selected as the site of a much needed “immigration depot” at a cost of $75,000. On the first day of operation, 2,251 people were inspected on Ellis Island. In the next six years, the number of hopeful new Americans increased to more than a million. Today, 60 percent of all Americans are descended from someone who came through Ellis Island.

In the hundred years between 1824 and 1924, 34 million immigrants from around the world landed on American soil. The first wave of immigrants were primarily Northern Europeans fleeing the starvation, oppression, and the social upheaval brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

The second wave of immigrants streamed out of Southern and Eastern Europe. Most sought greater economic opportunities, but many were also the victims of religious persecution. It was said that the faces of a thousand nations were on board when the great steamships of the early 20th century sailed into New York Harbor.

Like Columbus and the pilgrims and pioneers before them, each passenger on those ships sought the promise of America. The old world lay behind them. Gone were the monarchies and kings, the systems of caste and peasantry, of famine and numbing poverty. Ahead was a new world, the promise of a new life, and the opportunity to carve their own destiny.

People vote with their feet. For more than 500 years, people from all over the world have made their way to America. We have become, in the words of Israel Zangwill, “God’s Crucible,” the great melting pot where all the races are converging and reforming.

“This is the only country in the world which experiences this constant and repeated rebirth,” Woodrow Wilson said. “Other countries depend upon the multiplication of their own native people. This country is constantly drinking strength out of new sources by the voluntary association with it of great bodies of strong men and forward-looking women out of other lands. And so by the gift of the free will of independent people it is being constantly renewed from generation to generation by the same process by which it was originally created. It is as if humanity had determined to see to it that this great nation, founded for the benefit of humanity, should not lack for the allegiance of the people of the world.”

America is not a matter of birthplace, color or creed, or line of descent. America is a question of principle, of purpose, of character, and hope.

“To every man his chance, to every man, regardless of his birth,” Thomas Wolfe wrote, summing up the promise of America, “his shining golden opportunity. To every man the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can contribute to make him.”

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imgresWhat do you do when one of your heroes tells you they are dying?

Brianne didn’t put it that way, of course.  She simply called to say she was going into hospice; but she knew we had enough experience with hospice to know what that means – She has a life-threatening illness and has decided not to fight it.

That didn’t sound like Brianne.

Brianne has been fighting the odds with every breath, every moment of her life.  She was born with thirteen broken bones and diagnosed with a rare bone disease called Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI).  They said she only had a few hours to live and called the hospital priest to give her the last rites.

But somehow, Brianne made it through the night.  She kept on fighting through seemingly endless days and nights, defying the odds, until they said she was strong enough for her parents to take her home.  She was carried out of the hospital on a pillow, popsicle sticks taped to her limbs as makeshift splints.  Her family was afraid to touch her for fear of breaking a bone.

Once she was home, her parents went looking for help and found a group of physicians starting a research protocol for children with OI.  Brianne was so fragile she could break a bone by sneezing, but they encouraged her to learn to walk and challenged her to grow. And grow she did, graduating from American University and getting her masters degree from Marquette University.

But it has never been easy.

For 36 years, Brianne has faced one challenge after another.  She has had at least one surgery for every year of her life and has had – in her words – more broken bones than Evil Knievel.  But each time, whatever the challenge, she has taken it on with courage and humor.

In the process, Brianne has recalibrated my sense of what a hero looks like.  Thanks to her I have learned it has more to do with the size of your heart than the size of your body; more to do with the strength of your spirit than the strength of your muscles.  It’s not what you have that matters but what you do with what you have.  What you give to the world is more important than what you take; how you affect others, how you make them feel, is more significant and has a more of lasting impact than any material gift you can give them.

So what now?  What do you do when the doctors say there is nothing more you can do? Where do you go when they say there is no place for you to go?  Brianne was saying she is prepared to go home.

At times like these – as I can testify from a couple of close calls – you take stock of where you are and see life as seamless.  It stretches forward into the future and back beyond the boundaries of time.  There is no beginning.  There is no end.

You realize what Einstein meant when he said matter can neither be created nor destroyed.   Something cannot become nothing.  Something simply becomes something else.  The same atoms that dance in us dance in everything else in the universe. When we die, nothing ends.  The best part of our selves just learns a new dance.

What remains are footprints in time and fingerprints on the lives of those we have touched.  As long as we are remembered, we are loved.  As long as we are loved, we are indispensable and immortal.

In my heart and head, Brianne will always be with me.  I suspect there are thousands more who can say the same.

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Our Spiritual Base

imgresMan was created in God’s image. Too often, we are inclined to return the favor and in the process limit God to our own likeness.

Whether we are engaged in a national war or at a local high school football game, we pray for victory and hope to prevail, even though we know that there are an equal number of prayers on the other side, that both cannot win, and that our victory would devastate our opponent.  Some of us are so sure of our righteousness that we are bold enough to pray outright for the devastation of our enemies.  Others take it upon themselves to correct God’s mistakes and “cleanse” the world of all who do not share their passions or beliefs.

No matter how great and grave the differences between us may appear, below and above all is the eternal fact of brotherhood.  If we believe there is one God, if we believe He is the Father of us all, then no child of God can be said to be outside the pale of human kinship and no individual can be considered less human than any other.

For de Tocqueville, this spiritual base and the desire for religious freedom was the “point of departure” for the entire American experience. “It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society,” he said.

The Founding Fathers were deeply religious. Thomas Jefferson, who some say was among the least devout, had 190 religious books in his library. The Declaration of Independence he drafted speaks of inalienable rights endowed to man by our Creator.

On the backside of the Great Seal of the United States, which Jefferson also helped design along with Franklin and Adams, is a pyramid with an eye and the words “Annuit Coeptis.” Those words translated from the Latin mean – “He has favored our undertakings.”

He, of course, is God.   The phrase refers to the Founding Fathers’ belief that God favored our nation and provided for our success during America’s struggle for freedom.  During the Revolutionary War, prayer was held daily in the halls of the Continental Congress.  To this day, that tradition continues.  Every session of Congress opens with a prayer.

George Washington in his first inaugural address – the first inaugural address of a freely elected leader of a democratic nation in the history of the world – made clear his devotion to a higher power and his belief that God controlled America’s destiny.

“No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States,” he said. “Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”

To de Tocqueville the significance of this relation was as much practical as it was spiritual. He saw the faith of our fathers and the institutionalization of their beliefs in our democracy as part of the genius of America, tempering and balancing the values of ambition and enterprise.

“It must be acknowledged that equality, which brings great benefits to the world, nevertheless suggests to men some very dangerous propensities,” he said.  “It tends to isolate them from each other, to concentrate every man’s attention upon himself; and it lays open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification.  The greatest advantage of religion is to inspire diametrically contrary principles.”

“The taste for well-being is the prominent and indelible feature of democratic times,” he continued. “The chief concern of religion is to purify, to regulate, and to restrain the excessive and exclusive taste for well-being which men feel at periods of equality.”

George Washington clearly agreed.  “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” he wrote.  “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Every President since Washington has come from a similar place of faith. In the words of President Harry Truman, “The American people stand firm in the faith which has inspired this Nation from the beginning.  We believe that all men have a right to equal justice under law and equal opportunity to share the common good.  We believe that all men have a right to freedom of thought and expression.  We believe that all men are created equal because they are created in the image of God.  From this faith we will not be moved.”

Even Calvin Coolidge, known for saying little, had something to say on this subject.  He said, “Our doctrine of equality and liberty and humanity comes from our belief in the brotherhood of man through the fatherhood of God.  We do not need more national development, we need more spiritual development.  We do not need more intellectual power, we need more spiritual power.  We do not need more knowledge, we need more character.  We do not need more law, we need more religion.  We do not need more of the things that are seen, we need more of the things that are unseen.”

Whether or not you believe America came from God, it is clear the values that shaped our democracy were founded on religious principles and, in particular, the Christian way of life.  While it has become less fashionable to talk about the role of religion in public life, its influence is constant and undeniable.

The number of religions practiced in the United States now embraces all the known religions of the world, but these differing paths to the same end only serve to reinforce the same fundamental fact.  America is still one nation, under God.

In times like these, it is worth remembering where we began.  In the words of John Adams, “Our constitution was designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

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E Pluribus Unum

imgresOn July 4, 1776, our first Independence Day, one of the first acts of the Continental Congress was to pass a resolution authorizing a committee to research and devise a National Motto, as well as a seal for the new Nation. The task of coming up with the motto and designing the seal was given to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.

Two months later, on, September 9, 1776, Congress gave the new Nation a name – the United States of America. The honor of naming our country belongs to Thomas Paine, who has since been called America’s Godfather.

During that same meeting, Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams reported the recommendations of their committee. They recommended “E Pluribus Unum” for a national motto – “From the Many One.” If you look on the back of a dollar bill, you will note the American bald eagle is the most prominent feature on what is the front of the Great Seal of the United States. In its beak the eagle grasps a flowing ribbon bearing that motto.

The motto reminds us that out of many states – and many different people – one nation was born. The thirteen colonies had banded together to fight a common enemy, but they had always had a separate existence.

At the birth of our nation, the concern for unity was strong enough that Benjamin Franklin felt obliged to comment on it before signing the Declaration of Independence. “We must, indeed, all hang together,” Franklin said, “or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Many years before, John Winthrop, the visionary leader of the Puritans, recognized the challenge of unifying people with no common history, customs, traditions, or previous connection. In a speech to his fellow Puritan colonists in 1630, Winthrop defined his vision of the society he hoped to establish in the new world.

“All true Christians are of one body in Christ,” he said; “the ligaments of this body which knit together are love. All parts of the body being thus united…in a special relation as they partake of each others’ strength and infirmity, joy, and sorrow…If one member suffers, all suffer with it; if one be in honor, all rejoice in it.”

“We must be knit together in this work as one man,” he warned.  “We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities…For we must consider that we shall be as a City on a Hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us.”

This is a large part of what makes the United States unique in the history of the world. America is the only nation composed of people drawn from another place. It is the only nation whose people are not connected by blood, race, culture, or original language. De Tocqueville and every observer since his time has wondered how such a union could be maintained.

Fortunately, the assembly that was given the task of structuring our national unity contained some of the finest minds and arguably the noblest characters to have ever appeared in the New World. Fortunately, the assembly had George Washington as its President.

The documents they developed – the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – defined the structure of our government, our citizens’ relationship to their government, and our relationship to each other. As Americans, we are asked to balance our individual interests with the common good, our ambition with compassion, enterprise with responsibility, liberty with spirituality.

Despite the obvious success of their initial efforts, the founders of our nation continued to express concern for our unity. “The unity of government, which constitutes you one people,” George Washington said in his farewell address, “is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence…and that very liberty, which you so highly prize.”

At his inauguration after a bitter and partisan election, Jefferson said, “Let us, then, fellow citizens unite with one heart and mind.” Playing the peacemaker, he reminded the contending forces that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Shortly after the civil war, when the strength of the union was sorely tested, a Boston magazine called the Youth’s Companion created and published a twenty-two word recitation for school children to use to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. Understandably, the issue of unity was very much on their minds. What they created was the earliest version of what we now know as the Pledge of Allegiance.

The pledge they developed has been revised several times through the years and was not adopted officially until 1942. It was revised again in l954 when the words “under God” were added; but the focus of the Pledge in every version from the first to the last has been the request to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and what it represents: one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Concerns for national unity remained well into the 20th Century. President Eisenhower’s second inaugural address included the hope that we “may we know unity without conformity.”  President Kennedy in his inaugural address reminded us that “United, there is little we cannot do…Divided, there is little we can do.”  President Johnson followed suit, saying, “We are one nation and one people. Our fate as a nation and our future as people rests not upon one citizen, but all citizens.”

America is a rag-tag nation, built from the flotsam and jetsam, the scraps and misfits of the world.  At times the pieces don’t seem to fit and our individual interests, our determined pursuit of success and happiness, seems to overwhelm our sense of community. But when we are tested, as we were on September 11, 2001, at Pearl Harbor, and during the Civil War, the spirit of America rises and there can be no doubt we are one people, crying with one voice: United we stand!

At times like these, we are reminded that our true interest is a mutual interest. The doctrines that would divide us, the people that would separate us, those who put race against race, religion against religion, class against class, and worker against employer are false and doomed to fail.

Everyone is needed.  Everyone can contribute.  Individually, we may only have a small piece of the puzzle but each of us has at least one piece and every piece is essential.  This is where community begins.

Community comes when people see hope where there is fear and decide to join hands, linking themselves with others in a common cause.  Community comes when people decide not to ignore a problem or run away, but to reinforce each other and take on apathy and despair.  Community comes when we realize selfishness is at the root of all moral evils; selflessness is the goal of human existence.

The path to liberty cannot be taken until we recognize the fundamental fact that serving others is our common duty and birthright.  An individual has not started living until he or she can rise above the narrow confines of their personal interests to the broader concerns of humanity.  A nation cannot survive separate and apart.

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