Do not seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything! Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers. (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet)
Ten years ago, while doing research for my book, I had the opportunity to meet hundreds of people from across America and around the world. I saw many of the natural wonders of our country, from the bayous of Louisiana to the Turquoise Trail in New Mexico and the Painted Desert of Arizona; from the Lost Coast along Northern California’s Pacific Ocean to Yellowstone National Park; from South Dakota’s Badlands to the unsurpassed beauty of Maine. I also experienced some of the grand sights the world has to offer: the Taj Mahal in India, wild animals in Kenya’s Masai Mara and migrating elephants in South Africa, the grand cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Seoul, Mumbai, New Delhi, Nairobi, Cairo, Cape Town, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Brussels, London and Dublin.
When I returned home I saw my country with different eyes, eyes with a broad scope and depth of perception rather than tunnel vision. The Rilke quotation above was pasted on the cover of my travel journal. His words seemed a bit opaque at first, but I came to understand the power of their message: Life is not about certainty, it is not about finding all of the answers, but is about living with an inquiring mind and genuine curiosity. If we live easily with unanswered questions and stay faithfully grounded in our principles, we just might “live along some distant day into the answers.”
America’s Founding Principles
This does not fit the American nature. We want immediate and simple answers to complex questions; we abhor mystery. But Rilke’s wisdom is the best path to finding an answer to the question I asked in the book’s title: Are America’s Principles Eroding or Enduring? My conclusion after four years of searching was that our founding principles (equality, justice, freedom and democracy) are themselves enduring but the question of whether or not they are eroding remains unanswered.
A close look at America today offers a view of both sides of the coin. There is no question that over my 78 years of life the country has made progress on issues of human rights, particularly the rights of racial minorities, women and L.G.B.T.Q. people. But as I view the state of our union, we have at least as far to go as we have come.
And today we are facing fierce opposition from those whose preference is to maintain the inadequate status quo of the 20th century instead of progressing into the transformations required to successfully navigate the 21st. These right-wing political forces are blocking efforts to level the economic playing field and are seeking to scuttle proposals that would expand the educational, health and social safety nets. They complain that improving early childhood education, providing funds for childcare, and making investments to combat climate change are too expensive and will expand the deficit. But remember, they are the same people who jacked up the deficit with $5 trillion of tax cuts for the richest people in America during the Trump and Bush eras.
Build Back Better
The Biden Build Back Better proposals being considered by Congress come with antidotes for deficit expansion, such as increasing taxes on the ultra-wealthy, increasing the IRS’s ability to enforce the tax code, and bulk purchasing of pharmaceuticals for Medicaid and Medicare.
Unfortunately, the Biden proposals have been met with head-on opposition from the Republican in their unquenchable thirst for absolute power. The opposition party leaders are operating from the proposition that the quickest path to power is to destroy President Biden’s administration by ensuring that the nation fails to progress during his administration. These Republican obstructionists do not represent the people I met on my journey through 25 states, and they certainly do not represent the Republicans I negotiated budgets and programs with in the 1970s and 80s.
I pray that wiser heads will prevail and that the Trump-era Republican vision of replacing democracy with autocracy will fail. I hope that my grandchildren will not inherit the increasingly hostile divisions that my generation has added to the American story.
A New Beginning
Instead (as I wrote in the conclusion to the book), my message to my four grandchildren is simple and it comes wrapped in great hope and deep love: “You must have a new beginning that approaches problems and questions with curious minds. Don’t be locked into the ‘that is the way we have always done it’ school of thought. The principles you have inherited from our forebearers are sound, but you need to view them through fresh eyes and re-form them to meet the challenges and circumstances of your day.
“Don’t accept the 20th-century model for solving 21st-century problems. Expand your thinking into new realms, not bound by the perceptions of a passing culture nor weighed down by outmoded ideologies, ideas, prejudices and opinions. Have respect for the past and the work we did–– but move beyond it. Don’t obsess over certainty, because what appears certain today might go the way of the flat earth tomorrow.” As Rilke wrote: “Live everything! Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.”
This is my final post on Hope and Stone for a while. I need to follow my own advice: spend more time pondering and less time postulating. The site will return sometime in the future, but with a different focus. Thanks for reading and I look forward to further conversations with you as we live our way into the questions. Bill
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.