Dear Jonah and Micah,
It is very late at night. You are both asleep, and I should probably go to sleep soon too. But tonight is an historic moment, and I want you to have a sense of what this history means.
In some ways I wish you were a few years older than you are right now, because then you could understand how deep our frustration and fear have been, and how deep our hope and yearning are now. I think most adults I know had largely given up on the idea that our leaders could inspire us. We had good reason: too many of our leaders have let us down; too few of them possessed the combination of personal integrity, oratorical grace, and poetic imagination to stir our hearts. We grimly looked forward to what we figured was a bleak future of elections between the lesser of two evils.
But tonight Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Tonight the feeling we have is hope. Tonight a political leader asked us to sacrifice. Tonight a man brought us to tears. And boys, it’s not because he’s the first African-American to be President. It’s because he inspires us. It’s because he reminds us of what we can be. It’s because we trust him–we trust that he’s smart, that he will appoint good advisers, that he will make good decisions. It’s because we have seen just how bad leadership can be, and he seems to be the opposite of all that.
One of my favorite stories from the Bible is that of King Solomon. When King Solomon became King of Israel, he was young and inexperienced. God came to him in a dream and told him he could have anything in the world: riches, power, you name it. Do you know what Solomon asked for? A “lev shomeah,” a listening heart. Solomon asked for the ability to listen, to listen deeply, and thereby to become wise. And because Solomon asked for something so deep, so useful, so genuine–and not something as superficial as jewels or armies–God made him the wisest man in history, and made his reign successful.
When Barack Obama says “I will listen to you, even when we disagree,” he shows me he has the same instinct as Solomon. And it is this instinct, boys, that is so rare and so crucial. I know we talk about listening a lot. But when you are a grownup, you’ll find that listening–real, deep listening–is the most challenging and most important thing in your relationships with other people. It is at the heart of a marriage, a family, a community, a nation and a world. And the fact that tonight we elected a leader who knows how to listen brings me to tears–tears of joy.
One of my teachers defined leadership as the art of letting people down gently. I know Obama can’t possibly live up to all of the hopes we have for him. But I pray that he and we find the capacity to make good on enough of those hopes to keep inspiring each other, to keep hoping.
By the time you are old enough to appreciate all of this, Barack Obama won’t be the President anymore. You and I will likely vote in many more elections in the future when the choice is between two people, neither of whom we feel great about. But I bless you that, at least once in your life, you experience the kind of hope and pride in America that I feel tonight. Even at this, one of our darkest hours, there is a ray of light.