Reconciling the Old and the New — America at the crossroads

I read today in the Atlantic that this week marks the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. To mark his passing, the Atlantic posted JFK’s lovely, powerful, and I think relevant speech he delivered to honor the death of another great American mind, Robert Frost’s.

“I look forward to a great future for America — a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral strength, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.” — President John F. Kennedy

Here he juxtaposes conflicting notions, seeming contradictions. He places side by side our might and our virtue, our treasures and our truth, our past and our present. Kennedy’s speech optimistically assumes these competing forces will resolve, that reconciling these competing forces is inevitable for America, that it’s what’s next.

For me, however, over a half century later, I do know that those words resonate, but I do not know whether that vision has been realized.

What I have seen of late is a fundamental division between the past and present. We see people rightly arguing that there place in the new economy will not work for them, and feeling belittled by those already there. We also see other people driving forward the engines of our economy, and not understanding how some may not grasp its promise. This gulf grows deeper and deeper every day, it seems. Indeed, our time is marked by divisiveness I haven’t experienced (in my lifetime); by distrust; by resentment. And resentment often trumps reconciliation.

And yet, I was reminded of another insight penned by from another great American mind:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

I suppose this is an ability we all need right now. Because we are all left, I believe — or maybe hope — asking how can all this continue to function:

Can we love our country while we hate what some have done in its name?

Can we cherish our rights while others use them to denigrate us?

Can we stay while it seems like so many want us to leave?

Can we honor our great national past while imagining “handsome and balanced cities for our future”?

Or to summarize simply:

Can we balance the power of our unity with the purpose of our diversity?

Right now, right here, and for us, this is the test.

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