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Getting to We

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"We the people."

President Obama used this famous phrase four times during his second inaugural address.

This linguistic device, an anaphora, has been used memorably by the likes of Charles Dickens ("These were the best of times. These were the worst of times."), Winston Churchill ("We shall not flag or fail. We shall fight to the end."), and Martin Luther King, Jr. ("I have a dream...").

It is a connective phrase that brings together not just elements of a speech but members of its audience. Invariably the words help create a "we" from a collection of "I's."

The question becomes--how do we transcend this temporary rhetorical connection into action? How does hearing "we the people", actually become "we the people?"

Much has been written about the decrease in social capital between our people and the increase of partisanship in our politics. Over the course of the last 50 years, we've fed our "I" and starved our "we."

As evidence, in a study we conducted with Public Agenda last year, we found that the plurality of Americans say achieving the American Dream is something that someone largely achieves on one's own.

It makes it difficult to tackle our nation's challenges around our budget, gun control, immigration, and climate change when we cannot muster the collective will of the "we" and instead defer to smaller interest groups of "me's."

Given what's at stake, this inability to come together is enough to make a grown man cry. And ironically, it is through my own recent tears that I began to rethink the meaning of "we the people" again.

  • I cried reading George Saunders new short story Victory Lap, which tells of a near abduction of a little girl with a jarring climax that reminds us of how precious life is and how fleeting purity can be.
  • I was moved to tears by something as silly as an episode of Modern Family, where Phil Dunphy awkwardly struggled with whether to intervene and protect his teenage daughter from a bad decision.
  • And I wept when I watched the final scene in Les Misérables where Jean Valjean achingly says farewell to his daughter, hoping he has done everything he could to ensure her well-being in this world as he passes on to the next.
I was moved to tears in these instances because as a father of three little girls--all under five-years-old--I deeply identified with these stories. They viscerally remind me that there will be times in their lives where they will be in danger. That part of raising them will involve preparing them to make the right decisions when danger comes. And knowing ultimately, I will not always be there to protect them.

The tears shed watching Les Mis, Modern Family, or reading George Saunders were real but trivial in comparison to those born from the tragedy of Newtown. The mere reading of the names and ages of those 20 children created a river of tears from parents across the country.

In the days after, we were moved to act. First in the form of unrelenting hugs of our children and then in prayers extended out to the families whose lives were unthinkably changed. For a moment, the country felt galvanized as petitions were signed, organizations formed, and congressmen called.

As the days pass, fewer people take fewer actions and now it appears as if the calcified process of Washington may lead us to a place only marginally better than where we were before Newtown.

Today, it has become harder to galvanize us into action. We may allow ourselves to be transported to difficult worlds, imagined or real, but it is always a round trip ticket, and we return quickly to doing our jobs, paying our bills, and picking up our kids from school--too quickly forgetting that other parents will not be able to do the same.

Much has been studied and written on the growing science of social change. We know better how to frame and craft our messages. We know that it is more effective to find an unlikely messenger (i.e., Joe Scarborough on gun control) than to preach to our own choirs. And we know that new tools can help us tackle old problems (what a relief it was to see Organizing for Action launch and see an email that asked me to "do" not just "donate").

But it all begins with something more basic--our identity.

This is not a question of acting, but of being.

Someone told me recently about a billboard they saw while driving on a congested highway. It read, "You are not in traffic. You are the traffic."

We all wear many hats in our lives. As parents and sons, neighbors, employees, coaches, friends, gun owners or politicians. In hectic days, we juggle these roles and others, hoping we have our priorities straight. Often the hats that seldom get worn are those of American or citizen.

We break them out to vote in November or to celebrate our independence on the 4th of July. We'll volunteer for a cause or participate in our church activities. But it is more "what we do" and not who we are.

Our identities become the beacons for our behavior. It is why the act of stating, "I am an alcoholic" is the first step in recovery. It is why before we make big life decisions we ask, "Is this good for my children?" Studies even show that the simple act of calling yourself an athlete will increase the frequency of your workouts. Who we are dictates how we act.

So how will we define ourselves? Will we be fathers who are moved to tears or citizens who are moved to make a commitment?

President Obama will give his State of the Union speech on Tuesday evening. And while the state of our economy may be improving and the state of our standing in the world strong, if he is truly honest he should admit that the state of our union is not where it should be.

If he is looking for another anaphora for his speech, perhaps he should consider one built around his own identity and ours.

We the people are fathers and mothers who protect and provide for our children.

We the people are a nation of immigrants who work hard to create a better life.

We the people are politicians elected to serve the best interests of our people.

We the people are citizens who have a responsibility to engage in the issues of our day.

Getting to we begins with a better definition of we.