I love teaching. Usually, I learn more from my students (to include my Japanese students as well as the middleschoolers and special ed preschoolers) than they do from me. I am quite fond of this arrangement.
Yesterday, while teaching my Zushi group (1o retired Japanese men and women), I was struck once again by how educated other countries are about American politics and culture. Half the class showed up with a copy of President Obama's inaugural speech. The Japanese newspapers printed it in English with a translation to one side. My students had underlined their favorite parts with questions scratched in the margins. With help from their media, they had thoroughly dissected his tone and meaning. Their unique cultural perspective really made me stop and think about this speech and its impact on American society. Wow.
Granted, this level of knowledge might not be the norm here. The majority of Japanese folk my age and younger probably aren't as studious, but have you recently read an American publication with a translated text of a foreign head of state's address?
Yeah. Me, neither.
Overall, the Japanese response to the inaugural address mirrored my own. It surprised/disappointed us. We expected a speech along the lines of "Ask not what your country can do for you..." , but we received: "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." My students and I are were a bit disappointed that the speech was not more inspiring (i.e. uplifting). However, its direct and insistent call to individual and collective responsibility surprised us--not pleasantly, mind you, but at least memorably.
It goes without saying that 1960's America was a radically different time and place than the present, thus JFK's speech was given to a distantly related people--think of them perhaps as cousins twice removed. Exiting the 1950's, a time of great prosperity, much like the last 10 years, our family wasn't yet mired in an impossible foreign war. Our great modern leaders had not been assassinated. We had just started to wear "the greatest nation" mantle comfortably (and arrogantly). Kennedy's call to service made sense to a generation who was not yet accustomed to being serviced in every conceivable aspect of life.
Time travel forward to 2009--we are mired in not one, but three wars. Two are on the ground and one is against a phantom menace across the globe. Our economy has been, for all intents and purposes, assassinated, along with our idealism after 9/11. All of our people, especially the young but also the old, cannot ask what we can do for our country because our mouths are too busy complaining about what we are owed or praising our self-worth. We simply have had it all too fast and too easy and with too many accolades. I am not sure our personal or national egos need any more "uplifting".
I don't think President Obama can call this generation to service in the same manner as President Kennedy. Most of us don't really understand the full meaning of the word. We tend to think of it as something to be done to help remedy a broken world, which is noble. But service is more than that. It's duty--humbly done without complaint because it simply needs to be done. The recent Miracle on the Hudson put this theory into action. The pilot and crew, dutifully trained and skilled, were ready. They didn't run around "saving lives". They simply did their jobs, without complaint or expectation of praise. How many of us can say the same? I know I can't. (I kvetch about the "effort" of placing our abundance of clothes in a machine that does all the work for me. Jeesh.)
Maybe this is why his speech made me a bit uncomfortable...we are being asked to be of service to one another in a different way than giving time and money to a worthy cause. We are being asked/reminded that the "time has come to put aside our childish ways". We need to become an adult nation--one that is not consumed with doing the right thing to please others (while simultaneously showering confetti down on our exalted heads).
Rather, we are urged to be a mature nation--one that fulfills its duty to itself and to others by accomplishing what needs to be done with no thought to our personal inconvenience or hardship. And without the narcissistic need to be praised or adored for it. The Japanese have many faults, but due to their Buddhist history, they completely understand duty, service and sacrifice. These ideals still permeate every human interaction in this culture, every day.
Our Christian heritage demands duty, service and sacrifice, too, modeled by the Son's willingness to do what had to be done without thought of His own hardship. America can resurrect this integral part of her character. We can do it.
Yes, we can. Humbly. Quietly. Cheerfully.