It never really hit me until my 18th birthday, on April 28th of this year. It was one of those bright and breezy April days that felt like summer, and I was on a class field trip at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. I walked slowly through the exhibits, soaking them in –from the lively 1960 Democratic Convention exhibit, to the powerful video recording of the 1st Inaugural Address, to the film documenting the Cuban Missile Crisis– and all the while I felt my reverence and respect for John F. Kennedy being strengthened.
Then I came to the exhibit for November 22nd, 1963. I ventured into the long, dark hallway with a sense of fear and impending grief, for I knew what had happened on that day. I stopped in the hallway and stood to watch one of the television screens –the only adornments to the otherwise empty hall. I watched with a knot in my throat as Walter Cronkite told the nation that its beloved leader, brother, and friend was lost. Another man walked into the hallway, and watched next to me. He was old, the wrinkles on his dark face highlighted by the glow of the television screens. He shook his head as he walked by, and said to himself, “If only he wasn’t so idealistic.”
That is when it really hit me. I was in stunned silence for a minute or two. John F. Kennedy –the man who passed the torch to a new generation of Americans, who carried us to the New Frontier, put an American on the moon, and told Americans to ask what they could do for their country—was too idealistic? That is when I realized that this world and this country have lost something of irreplaceable value. That is when I found what I believe; I believe in idealism.
I believe in idealism –the quality of envisioning a better world and then pursuing it—and I reject the notion that a person can be too idealistic. What would our lives be like if George Washington, Thomas Paine, and the revolutionaries had not struggled to establish liberty in America? Think about where we would be without the vision and courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and every brave American who stood up for Civil Rights. In any time of great need and challenge throughout our history, the men and women who have risen up and made a positive impact were simply the most idealistic people among us.
For some reason, though, our culture has distorted the meaning of the word “idealistic.” It has become a synonym for words like naïve, headstrong, unrealistic, and this confusion has far-reaching implications in our society. We have incredible opportunities to profoundly improve our situation, but we are hindered by our own apathy and self-doubt. Why can’t ours be the generation that eliminates poverty, cures AIDS, eradicates hunger, and establishes lasting peace? Because we don’t believe that we can. We have lost our idealistic vision. As our idealism has disappeared, we have lost faith in our leaders, and have lost sight of the goals and dreams of our forefathers.
I sat for a while in silent contemplation in that dark hallway of the November 22nd exhibit. Walter Cronkite’s sober broadcast murmured in the background while that old man’s words echoed in my mind: JFK, too idealistic. It was as if that old man had looked me in the eye and said, “Son, you can’t have big dreams. Whatever you do, don’t try to inspire change in the world. Don’t try to rise to the challenge of the future –you just can’t do it.” I thought about that for a long time. In a way, it would be easy to admit that he was right. What could I do–what could any one person do—to truly change the world for the better?
Then I remembered the words from President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address that I had heard only minutes before. In speaking about the many challenges that he and his administration would have to face, Kennedy said, “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility –I welcome it.” That is when I realized that the old man was wrong. I need not fear the many challenges that I and my generation will have to face; I need only fear the possibility that I will shrink from those challenges and fail to attack them head-on. I have a responsibility: to look past the innumerable obstacles and envision a better future –and I welcome it.
I have faith that we can and will regain our idealistic nature. Idealism is at the very foundation of humanity, and I believe that soon we will begin to remember that. Considering the amount of progress we have made over the past decades and centuries, it is impossible to feel as though we cannot make greater progress. Anyone who sees the world –full of poverty, terror, violence and distrust—and yet looks forward to a future of prosperity, peace, cooperation and confidence shares my idealism.
As I walked out of the November 22nd hallway, I was met with John F. Kennedy’s words, in large silver letters on the wall in front of me. They said what I had known to be true all along: that “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.” This I believe.
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