Upholding the Common Good

“Timing is everything” they say. If so, sitting in a busy Starbucks on a Thursday afternoon is not exactly the best time to find yourself with tears streaming down your face.

Mind you, this was not exactly the café community experience I envisioned when stopping off today for a latte and to sort through some old files. In doing so, I ran across the full-page ad I had clipped for a special Annie Leibovitz series of photographs that American Express commissioned more than a decade ago. 

It was at this inauspicious moment that I began to quietly cry uncontrollably. And the catalyst for all this unexpected emotion was a simple photo of the now-deceased Congresswoman, Barbara Jordan, of Texas, in her wheelchair and wrapped in an American flag.

That damn photo, no bigger than a business card, latched on to my heart like a magnet and simply would not let go. And the price it required in order for me to get back to sorting through other papers was a most simple one … tears. Lots of them. In combination with periodic gentle sobs, swipes at my eyes, and a little full body trembling for good measure. 

I never met Barbara Jordan. I have read only a little about her life.  I vaguely remember watching the television broadcast of her speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. But she epitomizes for me the essence of democracy, grace, and leadership. Just look at some of her oft-quoted observations:

“The majority of the American people still believe that every single individual in this country is entitled to just as much respect, just as much dignity, as every other individual.”

“Justice of right is always to take precedence over might.”

“What the people want is simple. They want an America as good as its promise.”

Seeing her photo allowed me to hear her booming voice, so eloquent in its rhetoric, so powerful, confident, and uplifting in its cadence.

And so I cried … some tears for Barbara Jordan and the class with which she exercised political leadership … but the biggest tears were reserved for the power of her beliefs in the dignity of every individual and the power of America’s promise.

As a people we can, and should, be so much better. As an individual person, I can, and should, be so much better.

As the last few days of political posturing have demonstrated, we desperately need more individuals like Barbara Jordan to model the way, to remind us to be as good as our promise ... individually, as a nation, and to and for the world. Too many of our leaders fail us as they fail to bring dignity to our discourse.

As I finished my coffee I couldn't be quite sure whether I had been crying for the past or shedding tears for our future.