Earlier the week, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as President of the United States. I already posted the quote from his speech that I struck me as especially powerful (and, honestly, I really hope his speechwriter got some sort of special recognition for this speech, because it’s awesome!). But I’m still thinking about this social justice and personal responsibility thing, so I’m going to keep going with it.
Many people – and most pagans – have heard of the Irish/Celtic goddess Brighid, later acknowledged by the Church as Saint Brigit. But not so many have heard about Brig Ambue. Probably because She is not well attested in the lore. So, to catch you up, Dear Reader, Brig Ambue was a law giver – an ancient Irish social justice advocate. Her name translates to Brighid of the Cowless, and, as such, She is considered by some (including me) to be an aspect of the Goddess Brighid.
“Cowless” doesn’t really mean much in our culture, but it was a big deal in ancient Ireland, which was a culture based on cattle ownership. If you were cowless, you had no resources and no social status. You were disenfranchised. You were poor. You might even have been homeless.
We have plenty of “cowless” people in our worlds – the everyday worlds we each live in, as well as the larger world we all share. We see them every day, although we often don’t really see them. We see them, but do we have any kind of obligation to help them? I don’t think we do, exactly. But we do have an obligation – I think – to try to leave the world a better place than it was when we entered it in some way.
That’s going to mean different things to different people. Not everyone is a Barack Obama. Not everyone has the intelligence and ability to become a great President of the United States. But everyone does have their own talents and their own abilities. Their own interests. Their own perspectives. And their own beliefs about what should change and how we should change it.
In President Obama’s words:
Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.
What does that mean, in practice?
It means that we all have our own piece of the world to make better. We don’t have to agree on everything. We just have to try to make a difference in whatever way we can.
Yes, I’m speaking as if we have some sort of obligation, just because we exist. That’s not something everyone will agree on. And that’s OK. But I do think each of us has the opportunity, at least, to work to create something positive in our own, personal corners of the world. For some of us, that is a religious obligation. For me, because I honor Brighid, and because I specifically honor Her (in part) as Brig Ambue, I am obligated to try contribute to making the world a better place in some way.
But – and this is a very big “but” – I also have some pretty severe limitations.
Many years ago, I worked as an environmental advocate. That was my way of trying to make the world a better place. One of my biggest accomplishments was organizing and managing the coalition that got a state endangered species bill passed. Not a bad contribution to the world, right?
A few years later, I had the opportunity to earn both a master of arts degree in political management from George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management and a law degree ( a J.D., aka “juris doctor” degree) from Georgetown University Law Center. I mention the schools not because I’m trying to impress you, Dear Reader, but because I’m trying to accurately describe the scope of the opportunity I had to make a contribution to the world. My point is: someone with those experiences and credentials should be able to make a real difference.
And, for a while, I did. I worked for many years as a child advocate and advocacy trainer, then as a GLBT* advocate, then as a health policy advocate. I think the work I did actually made a difference in the world – at least a small difference.
And then my world came crashing down. Well, I went crashing down a flight of stairs, and my world went crashing down with me.
The brain injury I sustained in that fall changed my life.
Suddenly, I couldn’t read. I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t work.
That was a bit more than four years ago. I still can’t work.
My current limitations mean that I can’t do policy or advocacy work right now. I can’t write legislative analysis. I can’t run advocacy training conferences. I can’t represent a national organization as a Capitol Hill lobbyist.
What I can do, though, is at least try to make a difference in my little corner of the world, even though I can no longer make the same kind of difference. I can contribute to advocacy by communicating with my legislators. I can contribute to my community through my work with a local youth community theater group, a local youth dance ensemble, and a local dance studio. We’ve all heard the cliché: Think globally, act locally.
I can do what I can do, no more and no less. That might not be much, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.
President Obama, again:
We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
I realize that President Obama meant something a little different by those words. He was referring to the political differences that abound in the United States and in the world. And he was talking about the fact that any policy solutions we are able to implement will never be perfect. They will never completely solve our problems. They will always be limited.
But his words speak to another kind of limitation, too: the limitations experienced by every one of us because we are human.
I’m not the only one with limitations. You, Dear Reader, have your own limitations. Whether you have health issues or money issues or time issues or something else, you have limitations. I know that because I know that everyone has limitations. Even President Obama has limitations.
But a limitation – even one caused by a brain injury – is not an excuse.
We all have limitations, and we all have obligations. My obligation is to Brig Ambue. But it is also to my family, to myself, and to my own understanding of my place in the world. I don’t know what your obligation is, or who or what your obligation is to, Dear Reader, but I know you have it. Because you are human. And because you are a citizen of the world.
My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today, like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction. And we must faithfully execute that pledge during the duration of our service. But the words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty or an immigrant realizes her dream. My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride.
They are the words of citizens and they represent our greatest hope. You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.
Let us, each of us, now embrace with solemn duty and awesome joy what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.
B is for “being human”.