When I was a young boy, I heard President Kennedy on TV say "Life is unfair." when asked in a press conference about a serviceman stationed at length in Antartic.
The three words struck me and stuck with me. A few years ago, when the three words crept back into my brain as they so often did and do, I wondered if anyone else has been similarly affected. I googled "Life is unfair." and immediately learned that this sentence is listed as one of President Kennedy's most famous. I was shocked, but not really.
The entire statement from the president's press conference reads: "... there is always inequity in life. Some men are killed in a war and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic and some are stationed in San Francisco. It's very hard in the military or personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair."
As children, we're not attuned to differences caused by accidents of birth or life. We also think that whatever's broken can be fixed. Hearing the president say, "Life is unfair," sobered us up. It told me and others of my generation that there is injustice that can't or won't get fixed. But it also told us that the president and, by extension, all our leaders, recognized unfairness and suggested that we all had a responsibility to eliminate inequality to the extent possible. Finally, it told us that even the president of the United States, the most powerful and successful person in the world, could be exposed to unfairness -- that he too was vulnerable.
President Kennedy's three deeply moving words proved, of course, a haunting self-eulogy.
When I heard President Obama's five words from his recent speech, "Somebody gave you some help." I heard President Kennedy speaking.
America has lived through tough times, and these days are far from the worst. But the country is deeply and increasingly divided between the Haves and the Have Nots. The Haves aren't necessarily all rich, but have jobs, good health, health insurance, debts they can manage, cars they can drive, vacations they can take, and other things that go along with the American dream. The Have Nots are missing one or more of these things.
Each side fears and resents the other. The Haves fear the Have Nots will take what they have and resent demands for assistance. The Have Nots fear even worse luck and resent their status.
Neither side sees itself as part of a family, each of whose members contributes in different ways and is deeply committed to helping one another.
President Obama's five words are an urgent plea for acting like a family -- for caring and sharing. They are also a plea for humility, for realizing as Phil Ochs sang, "There but for fortune."
President Obama's words, like President Kennedy's will resound through the decades. They restate what John Donne wrote in 1624, that "No man is an island." We are one people, one community, one neighborhood, one family, and whatever success we expect to enjoy as a nation will be due, in large part, to our acting like one.
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