Tuesday, January 20, 2009

American Renaissance

Politics, the arts, and sports may not seem to have much in common, but in the last 16 months I have discovered that they have at least one common thread: they are all concerned with testing the limits of what is possible and with re-imagining an apparently fixed reality.

From September 2007 to August 2008, I was a sports writer covering high school sports for four small, weekly newspapers in rural Northern Michigan, and since August, I have taught humanities and English at Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois.

As a sports writer, I watched as high school kids dared to have dreams that outsized their God-given circumstances. Many times, those dreams were realized, and those teams and athletes that achieved unexpected or unprecedented success did so not only because of their talent and preparation, but because they allowed themselves to think bigger than their current sphere of possibility, to have the same type of ambition as Captain James Cook, who once said that he wanted to “not only go farther than anyone else, but as far as it was possible to go.”

Looking on from the sidelines, I could always tell when a team succeeded in breaking limits that had been set and hardened by a grim history: the athletes always had the same look of joy that I saw on the faces of those in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night last November and on those filling the National Mall during the inauguration. It’s a look of faith rewarded.

I’ve seen that same look in the eyes of some of my students when they’ve been transported into a new world by a work of art and have not come back the same. The world has changed. What once seemed immutable, judicious, and even natural now seems transient and arbitrary.

These students, just like the young athletes I admire, also have faith in an ability to reach beyond the seeming boundaries of possibility and to trust what is found there.

The election of Barack Obama has made me realize that politics, despite what the cynics say, is no different. Art, sports, and politics, at their fundamental level, are all concerned with first dreaming and then achieving a new possibility. What we call tragedy is when those possibilities are put before us and then denied by malign fate. Romeo and Juliet. Steve Prefontaine. Bobby Kennedy.

But, so far, the story of our new president has not been tragic. Our sphere of possibility as a people and as a nation has been irrevocably expanded. And this time it was not just one man with a dream, but an entire nation that rejected its historical limits of possibility for one of its own citizens and thus for us all.

President Obama opened his inaugural remarks by addressing us as citizens, not just as Americans. On election day, each citizen had at least as much faith as the candidate, for each one was required to imagine something that has never been and trust in it. Each one was required to go beyond his or her previous limits and be willing to not come back the same. The candidate, now the president, led us there, but not by force.

By doing so, Barack Obama sustained the American Dream in a way much more profound than by giving Joe the Plumber a tax break. He led us to renew that dream ourselves through our own act of faith; he did it by leading us to trust in our own hopes for rebirth and change. He led us to believe once again in the main tenet of American idealism, that present circumstance is never to be confused with inevitable destiny.

Barack Obama led us to have the same faith in politics that we do in sports and in the arts — a faith that doesn’t seek to overcome the impossible, but rather a faith that validates our American belief that some things only seem that way.