Earlier this year I had the pleasure of attending a bar mitzvah and was struck by how hope and optimism can sneak up on you when you least expect it. As we all sat in the beautiful tent, with the sun, in glorious color, peeking through, there was a prayer that caught my eye: “We pray that we may live not by our fears but by our hopes, not by our words but by our deeds.” In the midst of so much depressing news, economic stress, and uncertainty in the future, this prayer caught my attention and has lingered.
Our perspective on life is constantly being fed by an onslaught of news that is quick, trendy, and gloomy. However, as Helen Keller wrote, “no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.” I am not for a minute suggesting that things aren’t tough, or that mere optimism will solve all our problems, but before we accept some inevitability of our decline, before we determine we are powerless in the face of it all—let’s exhaust all the tools we have available, tap all the brightest minds, and arm ourselves with the enlightenment that comes from educating ourselves.
Here are a few books that may help. A fine place to start might be Thomas Friedman’s newest book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. He does not underestimate our challenges nor does he think it will be easy, but he does offer plans and ideas. And as always, he is engaging, practical. For the longer and British point of view, I urge you to read Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. He wrote these essays to counteract our losing touch with three generations of international policy debate, social thought, and public-spirited social activism and gives us the capacity to discuss vital issues of public policy. You may also want to look at The American Future by Simon Schama or the landmark biography George F. Kennan: An American Life by Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis. Kennan was one of our most influential post–World War II diplomats and one of the finest, most gracious writers on matters of policy. For some good reading on two contrasting viewpoints, I recommend Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics by Nicholas Wapshott. John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek were monumental economists; their debates over big versus small government in the 1930s shaped much of our country’s modern economic policy, and their theories are still the basis of many of today’s heated debates. A provocative read from an entirely different point of view is The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity by Jeffrey Sachs. It’s worth reading for a different perspective and a persuasive argument emphasizing good citizenship and mindfulness.
So what to do with all this knowledge? This knowledge gives us the tools to be smart, engaged citizens. Another tool at our disposal is our attitude. Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life makes you think about one thing you can do every day to make things better. News of the World by our new poet laureate, Philip Levine, makes you think about what unites us and what our common purpose is.
Through enlightening our minds, empowering our spirits, and engaging ourselves, we will start to see clearly that our own well-being and the well-being of our nation is not in the hands of the few leaders, but in the hands of its many citizens. So, during this holiday season and into the New Year, spread cheer (even if this sounds hokey), share knowledge, and embrace hope as we all work together to shape our future, our surroundings, and our community. And, of course, read. Read much and read widely.