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Yes We Can! Hope, Despair, and Hope Again in Health Care and American Politics

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When we roared in approval at rallies in the run up to the 2008 election, I don't think most of us really considered how hard it would be to make health care reform a reality. But since the President first began the debate last summer, the battle for basic health care for all Americans has reached a level of vitriol that defied all expectations. We have seen town hall meetings with cries of Nazism and socialism, death panels fear mongers, and tea partiers all getting wild with anger (egged on by Republicans) about legislation that will simply put America on equal footing with every other major developed nation -- namely health care for every citizen. The fight has been so tough that, I admit, there were moments when I lost hope that any progress on this basic human right was possible in our country. Sarah Palin's dagger went to the heart when she asked how that "hopey-changey" thing was working out for the President.

Now that this major victory has been won in Congress today, I realize that what I really had at the start of President Obama's term was not hope, but optimism -- and optimism won't carry you very far in politics, faith or life. Hope is different than optimism. Optimism assumes that everyone will be happy clappy and go along with the program, and then crumples when they don't. In contrast, hope inspires endurance, and requires serious work. Optimism is a luxury for those who can afford to lose. Hope is for people for whom there is no alternative but to persevere. It was not optimism that carried the great civil rights movements of the last century, it was hope that made a way when there was no way, and squeezed justice out of the bitter fruit of persecution. Hope is tied to a belief in something greater than oneself (if only the collective wisdom of humanity) that wills this world to be a better place. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote "Hope is the faith that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Hope is the knowledge that we can choose; that we can learn from our mistakes and act differently next time. That history is not a trash bag of random coincidences blown open by the wind, but a long slow journey to redemption."

The promise that progress is possible, and that history is kind to those who work for the common good echoes the famous profession of hope by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who reminded us that the "arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." Today's vote also calls to mind this quote by one of Dr. King's and President Obama's moral mentors, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote: "Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing that is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing that we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love."

Today is a great day arrived at by means of determined hope, enduring faith and the implementation of love. The United States has taken a step forward to truly reflect the words of the pledge of allegiance which promises liberty and justice for ALL. My guess is that even those who are angry today will begin to see the light once they see the benefits of this health care reform in their own lives and in the lives of their loved ones.

There are many more battles ahead -- on immigration, financial reforms, the environment and Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the military. Perhaps after this first year of Obama's Presidency we are less optimistic that change will come easy, but we can be more hopeful that change is possible if we persevere and continue to follow that moral arc of history. Let's get back to work.

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