Among all the many millions of words spilled in the wake of the election of Barack Obama to the nation’s highest office, a good many dilate on the idea of inspiration, specifically, that young African-Americans can now fully participate in the world remade for them by the civil rights acts of the 1960s and aspire to anything they wish.
This is undoubtedly true, and Obama’s election will have far-reaching effects that we’ll only begin to appreciate in future decades. He undoubtedly already has set many dreams in motion.
But I’d like to speak up for the idea of Obama as an inspiration for other people: People like me, as odd as that might sound. I was born the same year as the new president, but a few months earlier. And unlike Obama, I am a man of very modest accomplishments. That’s true of most people, it seems to me, though many of us had hoped and tried for more.
When you look at Obama’s past, though, it’s humbling and admirable at the same time. Here’s a man of obscure beginnings who made the most of his talent and abilities; his family was critical in helping him get there, but he figured out early that he could make an impact if he applied himself and thought big.
It’s hard to find as clear an example of the age-old idea of American striving than the new president. Yes, he had a good share of luck in his life, but had he less drive and ambition, he could have made a perfectly respectable, admirable life for himself as a community college associate provost, or a country lawyer in the wilds of Hawaii. And the world at large would never have heard of him.
But Barack Obama makes me want to get to work, to abjure my attacks of self-pity, to get up earlier than I want to and get cracking on the things I want to do. Time is passing, and there are things that need to be done, and if I’ve learned anything in my life it’s that you really can ignore something until it goes away, and if that happens to be a dream you had, it won’t matter at all to the world at large if you didn’t do it. It will only matter to you, and as you get older, it’ll bother you less and less.
And yet that attitude seems like the wrong one to have in the age of Obama. His example is an example of skill and courage, of luck and timing, but more than that it is the example of hard work and an absence of making excuses. It is in that sense a bedrock American attitude, and I can’t help but feel that I should sit up straighter and try a little harder in order to pay respect to the idea that, yes, you can: You can be anything you want to be if you seize the opportunity and don’t kid yourself about how much work it’s going to take to get there.
The election of Barack Obama means the end of the Reagan era for the country, and for me, it means the end of not trying hard enough. I’m not going to be the president, but I can do better at getting things done than I have. Whenever I want to cut myself another break, I have only to look at Obama’s example, and say: That’s what happens when you take your talent and make the most of it.
It’s a salutary example, and I have a feeling there’s more than one middle-aged American out there who might be thinking about a second career, or starting that business, or getting up early all this next week to finish that screenplay.
He’s certainly done that for me.
Mariinsky performs: On Election Day I hied myself over to the Kravis Center for a performance by the Mariinsky Orchestra (until this week known as the Kirov). I wrote a concert notice for the South Florida Classical Review, which you can read here.