This month as we celebrate our nation’s independence, I thought it would be fitting to honor one of our great and uniquely American writers and philosophers, Henry David Thoreau. Toward the end of his master work “Walden’s Pond” he wrote,
I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.
This statement is uniquely American. We, more than any nation on the planet believe that we have the power to determine our destiny. We understand at a very deep level that if we have a dream and focus on our dream with unwavering faith and tenacity, we will break through an invisible barrier to succeed at whatever we set our minds to. We are a rags-to-riches country with example after example of people who rose from nothing only to create unprecedented wealth and achievement. It is a lesson we all heard early on from parents, teachers, clergy and others.
As we celebrate our country’s freedom and our “can do” mentality, we are challenged to couple our “all things are possible” belief with an increased awareness of how our every action has far reaching effects. No longer can we afford the luxury of pursuing success for success alone. Instead, with our freedom comes a responsibility to use our power in ways that benefits everyone.
I just spent six days at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, NY, where I heard from people who were doing just that. People like Paul Farmer, Sandra Thurman and Rye Barcott shared their vision of a more perfect world where everyone is treated with dignity and has the basic elements necessary for a healthy, happy life. The theme for the week was “Global Health and Development as Foreign Policy”, and each speaker shared the progress being made in some of the most destitute places on the planet. They are our new world heroes as they dedicate their lives to improving the lives of others.
Paul Farmer and Rye Barcott in particular spend large amounts of time in places like Haiti and the slums of Nairobi partnering tirelessly with its citizens to advance the quality of life. They shared how we are making inroads into once impossible situations, and as a result, people are living healthier, more fulfilling, peaceful lives. They explained that this shift is happening both at the grassroots and governmental levels from Boston to Haiti to African countries.
As I listened to a variety of different people from the private and public sector alike, I was proud of our national culture of persistence in the face of the impossible and our unwillingness to believe that something cannot be done. This does not mean that we don’t have much more work to do nor does it mean that we do everything perfectly. But as I listened, I heard how there are people from all over who are committed to a dream of a more perfect world where everyone thrives.
All master teachers taught the basic law that “as I do to another, I do to myself.” When we have deep concern for one another coupled with the determination to create a better world for everyone, heaven can be found here on earth. Every speaker called us to action. If we are serious about living a spirit-filled life, it means using the rights and privileges we have been given in this country to impact others. We put a man on the moon, eradicated small pox, elected an African American as president. In spite of our faults, and there are many, we are a nation of power and possibility. As we dream big and move confidently in the direction of this dream, we will indeed “meet with success unexpected in common hours!”