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Thrity Umrigar Headshot

We Won't Apologize for Hope

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A few months ago, Sarah Palin, with her trademark sarcasm, asked Obama supporters, "How's that hopey changey stuff working out for ya?"

I realize that the rhetorical question was a slam aimed at Obama, and not really at supporters such as myself. But I took the question seriously and personally because it seemed to me that Ms. Palin was mocking something that had felt meaningful and important to me in 2008. Feeling hopeful about the future of my country and feeling pride at the election of our first biracial president, is not something I will ever be embarrassed about or apologize for. Despite Ms. Palin's insinuation, I was not a foolish naïf deluded by a Pied Piper candidate.

But implicit in Ms. Palin's question was the assumption that I, and millions like me, are now suffering some kind of buyer's remorse.

Quite the contrary.

Obama's historic 2008 campaign, and specifically, its confident, affirming chant of "Yes We Can," not only transformed and transfixed the nation but also empowered me during a bleak period in my life. For this, I will forever be grateful to him.

In December 2007 I found myself in Bombay, India visiting my elderly father who had had a fall the previous month. What was supposed to be a two-week visit turned into a three-month nightmare. As someone who had left India at the age of 21 and always relied on my competent father to handle every situation during my periodic vacations there, I was totally unprepared and unequipped to deal with the numerous medical and nonmedical situations and crises I suddenly faced.

As days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, I began to feel as though my home and life in America were receding, distant stars that I may never again see or reach. Despite staying in touch with friends via email and phone calls, I felt isolated and disconnected from my real life. I realized during this time that I had truly become an American and was a stranger to the country I had grown up in.

And then, two things happened. On TV one evening, I caught an excerpt from Obama's victory speech after he won the Iowa caucuses in January 2008. I was mesmerized. A few weeks later I heard will.i.am's "Yes We Can." I played it over and over again on my father's computer, played it late at night when everybody else was sleeping, making sure that the volume was turned low.

Meanwhile, back at home, Obama was waging a seemingly herculean campaign against the Clinton machine. In India, I was waging my own fight against doctors, hospitals and bureaucrats. There was nothing similar about his struggle and mine, except that his message of hope and promise became an inspiration to me. Once my father's health stabilized a bit, I began to walk in the evenings to clear my head. I would take my trusty iPod with me, Bruce Springsteen and Dylan blasting in my ears. Over and over again I would repeat to myself, Yes We Can, Yes We Can, Yes We Can. The words became a magical incantation for me. They stiffened my spine, strengthened my resolve, made me realize that my obstacles were temporary and could be overcome.

Most importantly, they made it imperative for me to return home to America. I had moved to the U.S. at the age of 21 as a young idealist, drawn to the America that belonged to Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck and Jay Gatsby. Alas, the country that I actually landed in, in the fall of 1983, was Ronald Reagan's America. I had waited a long time to find a leader who I felt instinctively understood people like me, who understood America's truest place in the larger world.

The last four years, with their economic challenges and dispiriting political stalemate, have felt disappointing at times. But watching the uplifting Democratic Convention last week brought back precious memories from early 2008 when Obama was trudging through the snows of New Hampshire and I was restlessly pacing through the humid streets of Bombay.

So with all due respect, Ms. Palin: that hopey changey thing that you mock? It was real. It was true. And it is something that we will never apologize for. The idealism, the desire for a better country still burns in our hearts. In fact, it is the very essence of the American experiment.

Because as the playwright Tony Kushner said, hope is not a choice. It is a moral obligation.

Thrity Umrigar is the author of the best-selling The Space Between Us and The World We Found. She lives in Cleveland Heights.