Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Courage to Listen

January 20, 2009 - Inauguration Day
By Zinta Aistars

We are all eyes pasted to the television screen in the conference room. Ears perk to catch every word. This is a day that will, no matter the long term outcome, shine in history. These are numbers no one has yet seen, amassed in the country’s capitol … no, not numbers. These are individual people. American people, with all the ethnic and racial mix of a great patchwork, massed together into one shimmering, living tapestry, gathered to stand as witness. In little more than half a century, what a long way we have come in seeing each other as equal, as worthy, with equally valuable voices, each and every one deserving to be heard. And just when it seemed all was lost, all hope gone, we have hope back again.

He may yet, at moments, disappoint us. He is, after all, a human being, like all of us. With faults and weak places and moments of passing shadows. Like all of us. But in this moment, he marks a turn in the path that has been leading to lost places, and he carries within him a symbol of hope that we can find our way to the light again. We are nothing without hope.

In his hands, he holds our hope. From all we have thus far seen, he holds it because we have gifted it to him, and we did so, en masse, because he listened to us. The young and the old, the poor and the wealthy, the white- and the blue-collared, the educated and the ones who run on instinct. He listened. He heard. It has been eight years since we have been heard.

We were all eyes, all ears, all heart, watching the inauguration of this country’s 44th president. One among us suddenly sighed, and said, “Am I the only one here who still likes the guy before him?”

There was a dead silence.

“Surely,” she continued, “you will admit that he had courage in his decisions. He didn’t care what people think.”

The silence in the room pulsated. My jaw clenched, and I bit my lip, my mind’s voice urging silence. Anywhere else, but not at work. One does not talk about sex, religion or politics at work. It is unprofessional. One cannot divorce a colleague.

I kept my silence, as did we all, and her voice sank into that silence, the last of an era now done, and remained watching the inauguration with the rest of us … because he is our president, representing all of us. Her, too.

When did we cross out “We, the people” from this country’s most sacred documents? When did we give up our democracy and trade it in for one man’s authoritarian rule? The president, after all, is not our ruler. We—the people—we rule. This is our unique and lasting American greatness. Our voices matter. The moment the president stops listening to his people, he has become a nation of one, and our democracy dies. Listening to the people is the first requirement, non negotiable, in the president’s job description.

Office folk, we kept silent, but we no longer feared not being heard. We had been heard. There he stood now, answering the call of our voices, speaking to us of hope and a nation about to be reborn, aspiring to greatness once again.

He may yet fail in many efforts. His work will be demanding and harsh and, at times, impossible. But that he stands before us today at all, taking an oath to act as a representative of “we, the people,” not speaking as us, but for us, is reason to hope.

We have been heard. Now, hear us roar.

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