“When I took office, I decided that each night I would read 10 letters out of the tens of thousands that are sent to us by ordinary Americans every day –- this is my modest effort to remind myself of why I ran in the first place.
Some of these letters tell stories of heartache and struggle. Some express gratitude, some express anger. I'd say a good solid third call me an idiot, which is how I know that I’m getting a good, representative sample. Some of the letters make you think -- like the one that I received last month from a kindergarten class in Virginia.
Now, the teacher of this class instructed the students to ask me any question they wanted. So one asked, “How do you do your job?” Another asked, “Do you work a lot?” Somebody wanted to know if I wear a black jacket or if I have a beard so clearly they were getting me mixed up with the other tall guy from Illinois. And one of my favorites was from a kid who wanted to know if I lived next to a volcano. I'm still trying to piece the thought process on this one. Loved this letter.
But it was the last question from the last student in the letter that gave me pause. The student asked, “Are people being nice?”
-President Barack Obama, University of Michigan commencement, 5/1/2010
Dear Mr. President,
Today you asked us to be nice. You asked all of us to reach out to information and opinions that we wouldn't normally be open to hearing. You asked us to listen, for a moment, before we start shouting. This made me think of a project I did in high school, a first-person research project they called I-search (before the days of iPod or it would likely have been iSearch.) For mine, I went for a week without talking, in an attempt to take a closer look at communication and the way it affected my relationships with other people. My major takeaway from this project was that listening required a great deal of actual silence, that I usually spent most of my conversations bantering, barely hearing the other person while I planned and constructed my response, often delivered at an even higher volume. Learning to be silent, to listen and to learn from what other people say, has been an ongoing process ever since.
So I took your advice, and today, in that spirit, I read the drudge report and watched some coverage from Fox news. (I also watched a youtube video that "proves" you're a masonic, zionist, Lucifer-worshiping distant relative of the former Presidents Bush. But that was kind of an accident.) Drudge linked to a National Enquirer story about rumors of your infidelity, FOX was comparing your reaction to the oil rig explosion to President Bush's response to Katrina, and suggesting that, in your video address to OFA volunteers encouraging us to help the first-time voters of 2008 stay engaged and participate in 2010, you were playing the race card by excluding white males. (Never mind that white males are the only demographic who have had voting rights as long as they've existed, your words, taken in context, were clearly not excluding any one.) I think that this is pretty low on the credibility scale, even for Drudge, and completely unsurprising from FOX. Needless to say, I was not persuaded. But, you're right, it does me good to listen.
Perhaps the people who need to take your advice the most are the 535 Senators and members of the House of Representatives who seem to talk, constantly, without listening to each other, to you, or to the American people. I suppose it may sound trite, to some, to consider civility when so many, seemingly more important issues are at stake, but we will make more progress working slowly, together, than by refusing to participate or include others. When I was in Palestine, I found myself getting angry all the time, at the injustice, at the entrenchment, at the unfairness of it all. I expressed my anger, once, at the sight of the Israeli flag over a settlement in the West Bank, and one of the guides leading our group cautioned me; "Be careful," he said, "the first thing they take from you is your compassion." I'm still angry, Mr. President, but I decided in that moment that no one gets to take away my compassion. I don't believe that FOX or Drudge or Glenn Beck or Mitch McConnell have much to say that is worth listening to, and I'm sure they feel the same way about you, MSNBC, Harry Reid and bloggers like me, but it won't do any of us any harm to try to set aside our anger and outrage and righteous indignation; to try being silent, listening to one another, and just being nice.