October 14, 2009

The President's letter: a librarian's plan runs afoul

President Obama wrote my library kids a letter this summer. He was responding to a package I mailed the White House last spring, containing letters and drawings from 10 boys in kindergarten through fifth grade. They had drawn and written to the President as part of a library program I planned called “Dear Mr. President” intended to explore similarities between Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln. I had another motive for the program: encouraging kids to become part of the democratic process by expressing a point of view. Their letters ranged from the serious to the trivial, covering war, abortion, and a request that the President’s daughters write them back.

This summer I wrote letters to all my state and national representatives to express my views on health care reform. I received only one reply, so I couldn’t imagine that the boys would receive anything for their effort—other than a lesson about living in a free society. When the President’s response to the boys arrived in June, I was beside myself with happiness and surprise. I used to work in the PR field where I frequently performed such ghostwriting tasks for leaders. Please don’t think I am so simple that I believe the letter was written by the President’s own hand, although it is possible.

Knowing that didn’t change my enthusiasm for showing the President’s letter to my colleagues and the kids who had written. Originally, I had hoped to display it in the library to show our kids’ involvement. My enthusiasm was soon dashed by my respected colleagues’ thinly-veiled contempt toward the President. I shared the letter with my kids, but decided not to display it after all, hoping to avoid an affront. I filed it away in a folder. I had never considered the possibility that such a display would be viewed as a political statement. After all, he’s not running for office. He holds the office.

When I ran across the folder in my office yesterday, I was filled with remorse. It’s not that I think President Obama is the Messiah. He’s just a man. Call me old-fashioned. I still believe that the President deserves the respect of his office, whether I agree with him on a particular topic or not.

Like many of my brethren who aspire to be better people than we are, I know that the problems I find in the world are frequently problems that I have with myself disguised. The whole affair reminds me of attachment—my human tendency to lock-in on an idea and maintain my individual sense of rightness at all costs. A survey of spiritual texts teaches me that there are many good reasons to resist this impulse.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still function. Realizing something is hopeless yet being determined to make it otherwise is one example. A writer’s world revolves around imagination and the ability to see the world through the eyes of many different characters. Good leaders do that, too. They have to be willing to consider opinions and views that conflict with their own, realizing there is no single reality. There is only perception. For every position, there is an equal and opposite opinion that’s also true. Whatever we believe about ourselves, the world, or others, someone disagrees and may prove us wrong in the future. Think of all the debunked science myths in your lifetime. Opinions change. Facts change.

If you find it irritating when people think they are right and you are wrong, then join me on a personal challenge to open some new pathways in your own brain and build a more nimble mind. The place to begin is with ourselves. Tomorrow, I’ll feature four ideas for opening new pathways in your brain. Meanwhile, please share your own thoughts about how to develop a brain (and a heart) that’s more open to others.

1 comment:

kwulfert said...

Moderation and detachment are basic tenants of Taoism and Buddhism, extremes in anything can lead to problems.Since I believe everyone and thing is connected as one, the postulation that there exists 2 opposing possible points of view doesn't in theory occur. They exist on an unimportant, ego based level. Some say in illusion.

I believe meditation is the answer to your question. The view from "there" is the big picture.

I think your assignment for the kids was wonderful. Display that letter! You are a role model to them and others.