We All Breathe the Same Air

Pakistan and India are nuclear neighbors. Border disputes are common. Both countries claim control of Kashmir. In 1947, they fought over it as they have several times since. But in 1947, they didn’t have nuclear weapons.

I have a friend from Pakistan. I asked her once how it felt to live in the ever-present tension of nuclear annihilation.

“We don’t worry about it too much,” she told me. This was hard to believe.

“We know that nothing will happen,” she continued. I furrowed my brow.

“We have an expression,” she said. “It translates to something like ‘We all breathe the same air.’”

When we fight with our neighbors, only one of us has to go off to drag the other down, too. A desire to win isn’t required. Nihilism and narcissism will suffice. Mutually assured destruction is easier to predict.

When my Pakistani friend said, “We all breathe the same air,” I thought about President Kennedy. He said those words, too. They’ve been important to me all my life. Even at an early age, almost from birth it seems, they held some magical quality for me. Until recently, however, I didn’t know why.

I was born on the morning of June 10th, 1963, in Seattle, WA. I’m writing these words exactly 54 years later. It’s my birthday today. I’m not doing much, just reading, resting, thinking, and writing.

I’ll have a piece of my wife’s special pound cake tonight, and we’ll share a quiet evening with friends. But that’s it. And that’s the way I want it.

Even when I was a kid, I wasn’t big on big birthday celebrations. Part of my story then was that I was well-loved by my parents but not well-liked by the world. This wasn’t true. It was a lie I told myself to explain away some of the pains of life and relationships I didn’t understand.

But I still don’t like big celebrations on my behalf.

On days like today, reflection is what I enjoy most. I’m reflecting now on the card my wife gave me this morning, the call I got from my mom, the text I got from my brother, Charlie, and the other one I got from his son, Taylor; the numerous other calls and texts from other family members and friends, and more Facebook well-wishes than I could ever imagine.

One thing I’m thinking about today is how much I am loved and liked. This is celebration big enough for any birthday.

But I’m also reflecting on something else, something about President Kennedy’s words, something about the mystery of why it seems they’ve always been with me.

I feel like I’ve known the entire quote my whole life: “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

I was five months and thirteen days old when President Kennedy was assassinated. My parents didn’t make me memorize presidential speeches before I could eat baby food, so it’s unlikely I picked these words up from early childhood — even though it has always seemed to me that I did.

Unlikely, too, is any opportunity I might have had to study them in school. Most of my K-12 years occurred in the permissive and experimental 1970s; my teachers weren’t big on memorization either.

Even in Mr. Brink’s excellent US History class during my junior year of high school in 1980, the study of our country ended in 1945 with Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin carving up Europe at the Yalta Conference in the aftermath of WWII.

But we never got to Kennedy.

Born in the shadow of Vietnam, my childhood punctuated by Watergate, I was hoping, as were my US History classmates, to at least get through the Nixon years. But it didn’t happen. Not even close.

Knowing what I know now about K-12 schooling as someone who has worked within it for over 20 years, I know that none of us whose cultural beliefs were formed in the late 1970s and early 80s, understood much at all about the 1960s and early 70s other than that which accumulates through myth and the occasional documentary.

Because of this, I think many of us of a certain age right now have little knowledge about or understanding of the forces that shaped the culture we inherited and the enduring lessons we could have carried forward together from a period of great conflict into what seems today a period of even greater conflict.

Ten years after Mr. Brink’s class, and five years out of college, I was starting a software company in Watertown, MA, just a few miles from Boston where I’d finished my degree in English. This was back in the day when renting a VHS movie on a Friday night was not only possible but an almost cool thing to do.

I remember watching Oliver Stone’s “JFK” one night with friends. During the opening montage, I heard Kennedy’s words. They were so familiar to me as if I’d grown up with them all my life. But I couldn’t say that I had.

I thought it was just a famous quote drifting around in the ether of popular culture. I never knew why it was famous, what Kennedy was referring to, or when or how or why it had captured and held my attention.

As much as the words may have mattered, they didn’t matter to me enough to look them up. Stone’s film came out in 1991. The Internet was a few years out. Wikipedia was a few years farther out from that. The Kennedy Library was just a “T” ride away. But I never made the ride.

The next year, 1992, didn’t go well for me. I returned to my hometown of Seattle in 1993. I had a rough time, but by the summer of 1995 I was feeling better. I was also thinking about how my life had gotten off track and what I needed to understand about myself to get it back on and to keep it on.

One thing I knew I needed was to reconnect with as many people as possible. Part of that meant returning to Boston.

I saw many friends; I had a great time. I also took time to visit the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, time I didn’t think to take during the seven years I lived there between 1986 and 1993.

With Kennedy’s words rolling around in my head, I hopped on the Red Line to the JFK/UMASS stop and made the short walk over from there.

I wandered around in the Library for 20 minutes or so. That’s what most people seemed to be doing. Eventually, I found a kiosk that contained all kinds of Kennedy “stuff”, probably running off a CD-ROM. (Remember those?)

I browsed for a while but realized I didn’t know where to look. So I typed, “We all breathe the same air” into the Search box.

A list of results came back with the phrase highlighted in a few links. I tapped on the top link and ended up at the top of a speech. I started reading.

I was 10 minutes into the speech and still hadn’t found my lines. The scroll bar on the right told me I wasn’t yet halfway through. This was a long speech.

I thought about scrolling down quickly to find the words I was looking for but I didn’t do it. I’m here, I thought, might as well read the whole thing.

Five minutes later, I found what I had come for. I also found a better understanding of what Kennedy meant by it.

The speech was about peace, particularly peace with the Soviet Union en route, not to “peace in our time” but to “peace for all time.”

I didn’t know it as I read, but Kennedy was signaling a radical shift in US foreign policy — an idealistic shift, to be sure, especially for a nation that had navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis only nine months earlier. But a worthy shift in my opinion.

Kennedy had some good points to make about why this shift was not only important but necessary. Perhaps the best set of reasons was contained in the lines I loved so much: “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

There they were: 35 words that had always meant the world to me.

A few minutes later, I finished the speech. By an accident of screen size and font choice, the scroll bar indicated there was a little left to go.

I tapped down to view the next screen and found this: “Commencement Address, American University, June 10, 1963.”

The day I was born.

I’m not a deeply spiritual person. I don’t believe in coincidence except to the extent of its literal meaning of two things happening in temporal and physical proximity to each other.

I don’t believe things happen for a reason. I’ve never used a Ouija Board; I’ve never had a tarot reading.

I don’t care about my Enneagram number or my Meyers-Briggs type identification. My astrological sign is Gemini, but I don’t read my horoscope, nor would I pay attention to it if I did.

According to numerous paper placemats in Chinese restaurants, I was born in the Year of the Rabbit. Make of it what you will.

What I believe is that we barely notice most of the things that happen to us, but once in a while they seem unusually meaningful. In these meaningful moments, we make sense of our experience by using it to enrich the story of our lives.

Standing in front of a kiosk at the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, I thought about the many ways Kennedy’s words, spoken on the day of my birth, might make sense as a frame for my entire life.

I couldn’t figure it out.

The words meant more to me than they ever had before because I understood the context in which they were delivered. Kennedy’s having spoken them on the day I was born moved them slightly along the continuum toward sacred from profane. But no miracle of newfound insight floated up to me from a kiosk screen that day.

Twenty-two years later, however, the words and their meaning in my life are beginning to lock into place for reasons that become clearer to me every day.

I say “beginning to lock into place” because, after all these years, I’m just beginning to understand how I fit myself to them.

I wish I could tell you that if you read to the end of this piece, you’ll see that I’ve figured it all out. But you’ll only see me trying and stumbling here and there along the way.

For me, writing is stumbling. As a very young writer once said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

Up to this point, I feel like I know what I’m saying. Soon, I think you’ll see me stumbling a bit. But if I don’t stumble, I’ll never truly run with ideas that truly matter to me.

Our world is deeply divided. It’s not Communism we worry about now as Kennedy did. We have met the enemy, and it is us.

The great divide in our own country is to me most troubling. Like the tension that exists between Pakistan and India, destructive action by only one party is all that is needed to take everyone else down with it.

In some ways, this is new. In the ways that matter most, it’s as old as Jamestown and Plymouth, as resounding as the crash of one people upon another, a sound that reverberates through The Missouri Compromise, Fort Sumter, Gettysburg, and Appomattox; through Ellis Island and the Great Depression; through Martin Luther King and Rodney King; through a man who would be king if we let him get away with it.

We have left far too many problems unaddressed for far too long in our country — problems we knew we had generations before we found the courage to deal with them. (Many that we’ve never found the courage to deal with.)

When Jefferson wrote of “holding a wolf by the ears,” we knew what he meant. This was no way to hold a country together. Hypocrisy and other human failings paralyzed the best minds of the day in this matter. Our Founders wanted to build a nation; it seemed to them best to wait until they could build upon the principles they established to create it.

Today, no single intervention, no matter how massive or sustained, can remedy the complex multi-generational issues sewn with such insidious intent into the fabric of the American character. Only dialog — dialog, not argument! — will shape our culture into something better than it is now or as has ever been.

The message for our times is not “Make America great again.” It’s “Make America greater than it has ever been.” No matter how many people attempt to drag us back to a time that never existed, time only moves in one direction, and backward isn’t it.

America is synonymous with freedom. The premise underlying that freedom is that we share a fundamental similarity and are therefore entitled to similar treatment.

We are aware of our humanity and of human fallibility as we strive continuously to form a more perfect union. But we still do not fully acknowledge the humanity of all. And this lack of acknowledgement now stretches beyond race, creed, and color to gender and geography.

The idea that we are created equal and equally endowed by our Creator with rights from which we cannot be alienated provides support for the notion that we are not at all different, but absolutely alike in the most important way possible.

To a fiercely competitive, individualistic, zero-sum culture such as ours, this frightens many of us. If we’re all fully human beings, nobody knows what happens next. Nobody knows how to turn party loyalty into true patriotism, how to turn constant competition into continuous cooperation, how to soften hard hearts, quell violent aspirations, replace hatred with anything less virulent or corrosive.

But it’s high time we figured it out.

Solving this Sphinx-like riddle is what makes this period in our history so dramatic, so fraught, so fear-driven and foolhardy.

If we admit to ourselves that we are more alike than unalike, we have to account for the humanity in each of us. This means an end to the convenient marginalization of groups. Yet this is precisely how we have sustained our union thus far. How will we continue without such a politically expedient approach?

By being the people we are instead of the people we think we have to be.

Each of us has the potential, every minute of every day, to be kind and generous, caring and decent, stolid and just. But we choose to govern in fear, more so today than ever before. We govern in fear of each other, in fear of our parties, in fear of our President, in fear of just about everyone—even, I suspect, in fear of ourselves.

Fear encourages us to embrace the worst of ourselves, our thoughts, and our behaviors. It also blinds us to simple truths. Such is the case when it comes to understanding this great divide in our nation.

The divide is not between us but within us.

We live divided lives: one part of us that hews to the better angels of our nature, one part that rejects our nature entirely in favor of abstractions, symbolism, fundamentalist ideology, and irresponsible nonsense passed off as the serious business of running the most powerful country in the world. We run scared like little children, falling over ourselves, skinning our knees and blaming everyone around us for our own clumsiness and injuries.

People divided against themselves cannot stand. And so it is that we are falling apart today. Our personal dysfunctions have become amplified by the madness of crowds. Groupthink sustains the worst in each of us until it becomes the worst in all of us.

That we espouse self-destructive beliefs and instigate foolish behaviors that threaten our own survival is antithetical to human nature. That we support ideas about others that we would never tolerate for ourselves — and somehow argue them as just — renders us all hypocrites of the worst sort. That we take actions opposite to our highest values and most virtuous beliefs is schizophrenic. We are out of touch with reality because we are out of touch with ourselves.

Threaded throughout our history are lies we have left unchallenged for so long they carry now the force of truth — and of law. We may be equally created and equally endowed. We may pride ourselves on our unalienable rights. But we have long lacked the courage to carry out our creed.

This is the roadblock to progress: not a lack of unity, but a lack of courage.

We lack the courage to confront the challenges of our age with intellectual honesty, transparent action, and spiritual integrity.

We lack the courage to engage with each other as individuals uncloaked from the distorted rhetoric of groups whose collective actions we can always plausibly deny.

We lack the courage to see ourselves in others, to grant them the same humanity to which we feel entitled, to do unto them as we would have them do unto us.

We lack the courage we need most these days, the courage to admit what we’ve known all along:

  • That the spirit of what is written in our founding documents is what makes America great;
  • That all Americans — and those who aspire to be Americans — long to be a part of something great;
  • That the greatness we seek in our nation and in our fellow Americans has been and always will be an idea that transcends place and time;
  • That we are an optimistic and forward-looking people who know that greatness is always to be found in the future, not in a romanticized past that exists only in myths born of the worst of our self-righteousness;
  • That our greatest intellectual endowment lies in our ability to embrace the complexities of modernity, and that our greatest spiritual endowment comes from our commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

These are the ties that bind us in our quest to form a more perfect union. We know this because these are the bonds that those who stand against American ideals consistently seek to sever.

For me, and I guess it has seemed this way all my life, creating a more perfect union means creating in our daily lives the manifestations of Kennedy’s call “that our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

These words are more than convenient rhetoric for a college commencement speech. They are fundamental truths about who we are and the world we live in.

We find these truths self-evident. But we lack the courage to align the meaning of America with the making of America.

To be equally created and equally endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, requires open inquiry into three questions:

  1. What quality of life can we create for each other through our knowledge of science and the transformative progress of technology?
  2. What does liberty require of us in an increasingly diverse nation?
  3. How we find happiness when, for all our riches and our sense of global superiority, America is consistently ranked the unhappiest of modern nations year after year?

Let us acknowledge that the tension of our time begs questions which can’t be answered by retreating to party or privilege, symbol or sect, tradition or tribe, ideology or identity. We can only answer these questions by seeking to understand our own life experience and that of others.

This means talking to each other in terms of life experience — in terms of personal life, not political life.

What are our lives really like from day to day and generation to generation? How do we construct the stories of our experience? How do we come to understand and empathize with others through the thoughtful consideration of their life stories? How do we explain to ourselves and to each other how our stories change as our world changes?

When it comes to communicating our most important ideas, nothing is stronger than the force of story. The best way to bridge ideological divides is to exchange ideologies for “I” statements. We do this best, not by talking about laws, but by talking about life. Instead of treating each other like monolithic blocks of abstract beliefs, let us treat each other as the individual human beings we are.

When it comes to the everyday circumstances of our lives, I believe we are more similar than we are different, that we are all inherently attuned to Kennedy’s simple but profound ideas, and that this realization is what will lead us toward a healing respect and hearty admiration for each other instead of the festering anger and acrimony we seem addicted to today.

But how do we get there? How do we even take the first steps? We tell stories.

The meaning of Kennedy’s words in my own life is now clear to me: they remind me of what we all have in common. They speak to that part in me that I’m always looking for in others: the part we are always “for” and never “against.”

For reasons too complex to unwind and too pointless to belabor, we have lost the ability to engage in civil discourse with regard to political issues in our country. It is vital that constructive dialog be restored. I suggest that, wherever possible and prudent, we shift our discussions away from the political and toward the personal.

We must share the stories of our lives and the lives of those we love. Fashion narratives that make important points about things that matter. And always be authentic and truthful in the telling.

Let’s all get off of Twitter, where mean-spirited one-liners are the currency of exchange; where unintelligible typos and cryptic quotation marks are nothing more than chum—refuse attracting only those hungry for conflict and controversy.

We would all do better to choose a different medium, a medium worthy of who we are and what we need to say to each other; a medium that is accessible to all, that can carry stories long and longer; a medium that promises not only more thoughtful communication but more thoughtful commentary as well.

Each of us has the opportunity to be a force for understanding and empathy in the world by sharing the truth of our lives through story and seeking to understand and honor the truths within the life stories of others.

This is where dialog begins. This is how old scores are settled without recourse to new aggressions; how tenuous relationships are made stable and certain without the need for negotiation; how better bonds between us are formed and strengthened. Through the force of story, we discover and define common cause, celebrating our similarities instead of disrespecting our differences.

We all breathe the same air. What is toxic to one of us is toxic to all. There are no arguments against this, scientific or otherwise.

We all live together on this tiny planet with beings no less human than ourselves. When we declare that some are undeserving of our care and compassion—or worse, when we claim to value all lives equally, but act as if only some lives matter—we demean the living and degrade the value of life itself.

We all care about our children. We all want the same things for them, too: that they inherit a world that is better than the way we found it, and that they live lives a little better than our own.

We are all aware of our mortality. We accept death as part of life. But we do not accept senseless violence, willful corruption or neglect, or unconscionable incursions on our daily lives. Nor do we accept attitudes and policies based on exclusion and dehumanization that tend to exacerbate random violence. In all the ways we can imagine, we must choose inclusion over exclusion because people who truly live along with one another, get along with one another.

It is time to begin putting into the world that which sustains us; that which is life-giving; that which extends to all a true sense of safety, stability, and promise. It is time to begin putting out into the world stories that remind us who we are and how we are more alike than different.

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