To Obama From A Dying Friend
By Paul Loeb
July 6, 2009 - 11:20am ET
My friend Robert Ellis Gordon is dying of lupus, with months left to live. He’s spent more than a decade teaching writing to prison inmates, written a terrific book called The Fun House Mirror from those experiences and crafted a rave-reviewed novel, When Bobby Kennedy was a Moving Man, on Kennedy being sent back to earth to determine whether he deserved Heaven or Hell.
I often quote something Robert said to a group of fellow prison teachers, which seems an apt metaphor for any effort at change: “Some of the people we work with will already have redeemed their lives. Others, no matter what we do, will be back in here again. And for some, our efforts will make all the difference. We will never know which group is which, but that should not serve as a deterrent to our efforts.”
Robert just wrote this open letter to Obama, challenging him to reach for his deepest levels of courage in being honest about what we face after decades of pillaging our economy. I’ll miss his wise voice.
Dear Mr. President:
I am one, among millions, who recently received an email regarding your health care plan. Mr. Plouffe’s email requested personal stories.
As a fifty-five year old man who has lived with a rare and serious illness since 1989, and who was recently referred to hospice, I am, I suppose, no less qualified than others to write about the challenges and unlooked-for blessings that accompany a fatal disease.
Upon reflection, however, I realized my story would be less compelling than others. For I come from a generous family. True, we were raised to make our way in the world and I started to work at age fourteen. Some forty years later, however, when it became evident that I could no longer hold down a job, my family cut back on their expenses so that my basic needs would be met. Hence I will not die, as thousands of my counterparts do, alone and anonymous in a hospital room or in the streets.
So? I deleted Mr. Plouffe’s email and returned to the task at hand. But deleted or not I was distracted by the email, so much so that I left the computer and took my dog for a walk. At the park, as I tossed the squeaky ball to Rose, I asked myself a question: if given the opportunity to write a letter to the President -- a letter in which illness and impending death served a larger agenda-- what would I say to him?
The answer was immediate and impassioned: “Please level with the people. Now.”
What do I mean by level? And why this sense of urgency?
The urgency stems from the peril I see in an unbalanced presentation of your economic scenario. I do not mean to suggest that you speak only of the most dire predictions. We need a substantive message of hope. It’s been a long forty years since we heard one. But authentic hope, as you know better than most, is founded upon truth. You had the courage to speak it throughout your campaign, and the magnitude of your victory revealed a public yearning to hear it.
In order to sustain the trust of the people, it is imperative that you continue to feed this yearning. That you do as you did in your speech on race: speak to us as adults. Speak even more deeply from the heart as well as the head. Above all, speak in the spirit of Judge Learned Hand: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure.”
So even as you speak words of hope and quell our fears with your steady presence, let us know that you proceed in the spirit of not being too sure because you cannot be; because no one can be; because a global economic meltdown is unprecedented in scope and nature.
Tell the people, as FDR did, in a style that is true to yourself, that there’s no panacea for this catastrophe. A catastrophe that was decades in the making and is not yet fully understood. And that your approach, therefore, must be a flexible one that allows for a sliding scale of eventualities, among which is the possibility—remote or not-- that this economic Katrina may outrace your best efforts to both remedy the cause and mitigate the effects.
What is to be gained by leveling with the people now? And what are the consequences if you do not do so?
Your most precious resource, Mr. President, is neither your brilliance nor the elegance with which you wield the language. Your most precious resource is your credibility.
The consequences of an unbalanced presentation, one that tilts too heavily toward the rosy?
No adverse consequences if that scenario unfolds.
But if worse continues to lead to worse as numerous economists predict, and you deny yourself political cover by not allowing for that eventuality?
Your popularity will prove thin and short-lived. You will lose your credibility. Quickly. And once relinquished, it can’t be restored.
Should you lose your credibility the people will, at the least, dismiss you as yet another president in a long line of presidents who opted to not be statesmen. As for your ability to summon our better angels? That remarkable gift will be squandered.
And that’s the best case scenario, Mr. President.
If , in the absence of a credible President, tens of millions—millions who are ill-prepared for adversity—find themselves living in a state of deprivation and want? And if fear of the unknown starts feeding upon itself?
The people may, as they have in the past, turn to a leader who uses the energy of ignorance and fear to summon our darkest impulses. We don’t have to travel back to the Trail of Tears to recognize our capacity for looking the other way while our government pursues a policy of genocide.
We don’t have to travel back to the torture and murder of Emmett Till to recognize our capacity for denying the humanity of a child.
Joe McCarthy’s sheet of paper?
A mere nine months ago John McCain chose a running mate who proved masterful at inciting fear and hatred of “the other.” And if worse continues to lead to worse in the absence of a credible president, the hatred we saw on the periphery of her crowds could move to the center and burst into flames that consume our better angels as they fan out.
On June 2nd the headline for the New York Times lead story ran beneath this headline: “Obama Is Upbeat For G.M. Future On A Day Of Pain.”
Upbeat on a day when the lives of 21,000 autoworkers and their families were shattered.
Upbeat on a day in which the closing of seven plants will translate into tens of thousands of shattered lives in other sectors of the auto industry.
Upbeat on a day when the Times ran an editorial devoted to yet a new wave of home foreclosures.
There’s a dissonance here, Mr. President. And even from the standpoint of political calculation— of the coldest Machiavellian calculation—this dissonance does not have to be. Last November the people rejected the politics of fear, rigidity, half-truths and lies, and embraced the politics of unity and truth. This was a tribute to our ability to discern and to the authentic nature of your message. A message of hope to be sure, but one that calls not for ease but sacrifice. And perhaps above all we came to appreciate a creative and compassionate vision that is tempered, at long last, by reality. Your vision represents the best and perhaps last hope for our children and for theirs.
You forged a bond with the people, Mr. President. But the glue hasn’t set and the glue will not set if you do not recalibrate your message.
The last and most important question: what is to be gained by leveling?
Perhaps the best way for me to address the positive, the potential for realizing your vision, is to circle back to Mr. Plouffe’s request, and speak to you in personal terms about the lessons of illness and impending death.
You may be familiar with this quote from the poet, Sylvia Plath. “If only you could see me forge my soul, fighting and fighting to forge my soul.”
Sylvia Plath succumbed to her despair, committed suicide in 1963. But her words still stand, maybe now more than ever, as tens of millions face the potential, at least, of entering the forging fire. And should that come to pass the people will look to you, just as the British looked to Churchill, for guidance, solace, and above all hope in the midst of their despair.
And where does my twenty-year dance with the fire fit into all of this? Where do you and I intersect? What have I learned that could possibly be of use to the President of the United States? What have I learned that might help this good man forge the soul of a nation?
Maybe something. Maybe nothing. But for what it’s worth I offer a glimpse of my journey and a couple of nuggets I’ve picked up along the way.
The first nugget?
That we forge our souls not for ourselves but in order to be better disciples of compassion.
And how does an obscure writer and former prison teacher make a contribution this late in the day with a timeline, in all likelihood, of months?
Below, an excerpt from a recent note to the doctor who saved my life on numerous occasions over the past two decades.
… Suffering may teach but it is not an end in and of itself. And when the pain abates, during windows of peace, I write.
I have a book to complete before I die. It is different from the others. I want to leave something behind that may serve as a source of solace to a reader here or there; a reader who wrestles with despair during this era of incomprehensible suffering.
All those high-risk infusions? The fatal infection you warn me about? And my choice to continue, to run the risk, in order to buy time to write?
Like any man I fear a painful death. But after receiving Extreme Unction on multiple occasions, I no longer fear death itself. What I fear is a life not well-lived. And the best way for me to do so during the time that remains is to complete that manuscript.
It’s just my body (not my soul) that is weary…
So that is my final task: to forge my soul on the page. I may die before I finish. Or I may risk all on the page and find that my skill is wanting; that the story implodes on itself. But if I fail in this task, I will do so in obscurity.
Because you sit where you sit, you don’t have that luxury.
What you do have is the opportunity and responsibility to explain how we got here and enumerate the full panoply of outcomes.
If the rosy scenario comes to pass? The people will know, by dint of your honesty, that you are neither above nor below but of them.
And if worse continues to lead to worse? If tens of millions find themselves living at the extremes of deprivation and want? And you’ve retained your credibility?
The dreams you’ve resurrected may still be realized. Realized in ways and to a degree that would be unlikely during less uncertain times.
You’ll be able to protect us, protect the children, from those who would prey upon fear and unleash violent thought, language and deed.
And as this economic Katrina continues to strengthen? As the people become increasingly aware that economic security is not a birthright? And are overwhelmed by a sense of vulnerability?
As the people walk through the fire together, the differences so artfully exploited by your predecessor will assume their proper perspective. And compassion may well fill the void. Shared adversity has a way of doing that.
And after the worst has passed, Mr. President? And the people, having been tempered by the fire, emerge stronger and more compassionate? Emerge with a visceral understanding of what it means to be dispossessed?
That, Mr. President, is when your vision may be realized. For the people who revealed a desire to serve at the outset of your candidacy, during times of relative prosperity, will still be here when the fire is extinguished. But the people will not be the same. They’ll be more able and willing to answer your call. And their progeny will learn through their example.
This is not to say that the fire is pleasant. At times it’s excruciating. I know that well. At times I want nothing more than to escape, and it is only faith that sustains me. Faith in God, yes, but also in man. Indeed, as I approach the River’s edge, the distinction between divinity without and divinity within seems merely to be one of choice. And a simple choice at that: towards violence or towards compassion.
This is your hour, Mr. President.
I, like you, am both a child of God and a member of the body politic. And as I ready myself to leave this bittersweet world, I want you to know that it affords me much peace to know that you are the President. A President who quietly rescued the Constitution. Who can forge the nation’s soul if the need arises. And who re-ignited the flame of hope and compassion months before the general election. A flame that was muted but not extinguished some forty years ago.
And this speaks to the most important lesson I’ve learned from my twenty-year dance with the fire. Certainly all people wish and deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion. But the human heart is bigger than that. We wish, as well, to experience our magnanimous natures, the divinity within. This is what Gandhi knew and tapped into. This is what my favorite saint knew: “It is in the giving that we receive.” And this, Mr. President, is what you know.
So. A dying man’s prayer for you and the nation: that the light that burns so brightly in you and your family will extend through generations. And if the children of the children choose to be their brothers and sisters’ keepers simply because they listen to their hearts; hearts that tell them they’re here to improve the lot of others?
Well, they may never know it was you who reminded their forbears of who they truly are. They may never even know your name.
But what of it?
If the words you spoke on election night come to fruition, they will not bring an end to suffering. But they will bring forth the better angels of which you speak; of which the last great candidate for president spoke.
And when I hear you summon our better angels forth, I hear echoes of the poet Robert Kennedy quoted on the darkest night of his brief campaign. And what greater legacy could he ask of you, and you, in turn, ask of us, than a renewed commitment to the age-old call to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world?
Robert Ellis Gordon
Robert Gordon is the author of When Bobby Kennedy Was a Moving Man and The Funhouse Mirror: Reflections on Prison. He’s written for Esquire, the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, Ploughshares, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and taught writing in Washington State prisons, juvenile institutions and inner-city high schools. He wrote Funhouse Mirror while undergoing chemotherapy, collaborating with six of his incarcerated students to let their voices be heard. The book won the 2000 Washington State Book Award. As one critic wrote of Bobby Kennedy, “Gordon’s vision is at once radical and healing. It teaches us a little about Heaven and a lot about Hell.” Robert can be reached at email@example.com
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