Last month, actress-activist-author Marlo Thomas released her latest bestseller, The Right Words at the Right Time, Vol. 2: Your Turn!, a collection of personal essays by 101 contributors who recall the words that changed their lives forever. While the first volume in the series (2002) featured stories written by cultural icons--from Walter Cronkite and Jack Nicholson to Oprah Winfrey and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg--this time Thomas solicited essays from "everyday people," a decidedly unfamous cross-section of Americans hailing from the heartland and the coasts, from cities and farmlands, from red and blue states alike.
I worked with Thomas as an editor on both books, and at first I thought the sequel would be a drag. After all, who's more exciting to edit, Muhammad Ali describing his skyrocket to greatness, or a fisheries biologist from Montana?
But a funny thing happened on the way to press. I was unexpectedly reawakened to the divine diversity of the American people and, more to the point, reminded how the politicization of our culture over the past six years has obscured the great goodness of our commonality.
In truth, beneath the rancorous shouting and endless recriminations we see nightly on cable, we are more alike than Hannity and Colmes would have us believe.
The first story in the book, for instance, is written by Floridian Tim Ciciora, a retired Command Master Chief from the United States Navy who recounts his 1991 homecoming from the first Gulf War. Feeling under-appreciated by the top brass and exploited by rah-rah patriotic fervor then sweeping the nation, Tim was ready to hang up his stripes. But on the way home from the pier, he pulled into a Burger King. When he tried to pay for his meal, the counter girl--eyeing Tim's uniform--returned his money, kissed his hand, and thanked him for his service in the Gulf. Tim was rocked.
"I suddenly felt like the Grinch feels when he discovers what Christmas is all about," he writes. "For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had a purpose being in the Navy. It wasn't about money or rank or prestige. It was about raising the flag. We fight so others can sleep at night. And I had forgotten that."
I, too, had an epiphany when I read Tim's story. Since the fighting began in Iraq, the nation's armed forces have been air-dropped into a kind of no man's land between political factions here at home, only to be ambushed from both sides. Those of us who see the war as wrong and reckless often describe the American soldier as the unwitting victim of an unjust intervention, invoking his safety and well-being as a way of pressing our own arguments. Those on the right are no less passionate, touting our fighting men and women as the real Americans, paragons of patriotism who understand the proud tenets of democracy in a way that the rest of us can't.
Tim's story underscored for me the narrowness of both points of view. Since her founding, America has been involved in assorted wars--both respected and reviled--and yet those who serve their country on the battlefield have never been charged with protecting the nation's politics, but rather her soil. Tim understands that, and it a testament to his heartfelt clarity on the matter that I have read his story at least a dozen times and still can't determine where he pitches camp on the political spectrum. That is as it should be.
Then there's religion. Right Words, Vol. 2 features several stories about devotion, and when I was assigned to edit them, I was more than a little wary. So pervasive has been the infiltration of the religious right into the workings of the current administration that I have become distrustful of anyone invoking God's name. In the end, I've thrown the baby Jesus out with the bathwater (along with Mohammed, Moses, and anyone else whose spiritual example is routinely used to brand the rest of us sinners), primarily as a way of protecting myself from being Bible-thumped to death.
And yet the stories about religion in Right Words 2 have helped to restore my faith in faith, as they remind me that genuine devotion is not a roundtable debate among finger-waggers, but rather a quiet one-on-one between an individual and his or her God.
Californian Rebecca Barkin writes about struggling with her Catholicism at age 19, until her great aunt, a convent nun, tells her, "If you believe in the innate goodness of people, you believe in God. That's good enough for now." Those words gave Rebecca the freedom to worship in her own way, and not according to the latest holy dust-up in the headlines.
Or in another story, police officer Steve Martinez of Omaha, Nebraska, recalls holding vigil in a hospital waiting room after a fellow cop was shot. The suspect in the assault was African-American; so when a black woman in the emergency room corridor asked Steve if he was a policeman, he expected a racial argument to erupt.
Instead, Steve writes, when he told the woman he was a cop, she grabbed his hand.
"Then let's pray together," she said.
Nowhere in these stories are mentions of stem cells, gay marriage, evolution, or any of the other earthly matters that have been used so effectively to build a wall between Americans. Instead, the writers simply describe their trust in a higher power, unencumbered by Biblical citations and us-them rhetoric. That's the stuff of true believers.
But for me, the most applicable "right words" in Thomas' new book come from Judith Grace of Illinois, who writes about the wrenching agony of losing a son six days after his birth. Swallowed up by grief, Judith turned to her neighbor to ask for guidance.
"Whenever something hurts us in life," the neighbor tells her, "we have a choice to make: We can become bitter or better. It's really up to us."
As one of the 70 percent of Americans who are unhappy with the direction in which our country is now headed, I have spent the last six years feeling bitter--about the Administration, about the war, about the host of ills visited upon our schools and cities and communities. But being bitter, while cathartic, has gotten me nowhere.
So as we look down the line toward the mid-term elections, maybe it's time to stop bickering about what divides us, and instead talk about what we can achieve--perhaps even together. As Judith writes: "I have lived both sides of the bitter-better debate, and I can say with all my heart: better is better."