I believe that even the deepest, most entrenched cynicism can occasionally be penetrated by the rapier of hope. My belief in disbelief has served me well, overall. It is the insulation that protects me from the unforeseen frontal attack of some painful reality, the gritting of teeth for the rip of the band-aid. I may have suffered what Will Herberg called “the cynicism from idealism gone sour.”
In 1968, I was a junior in high school, self-centered and vapid. While flipping through one of my teen magazines, I came across an essay written by Robert F. Kennedy. The incongruity of that essay there among fashion tips and lovelorn columns prompted me to read it out of curiosity. RFK challenged me. He said that with our lives comes a responsibility to be useful–to be a part of the human community. It was, for me, a watershed moment. I became passionate about his ideas and vowed that if he won the nomination I would become more involved.
On June 5th, I came home from a date in time to hear RFK give his acceptance speech at the Ambassador Hotel following the California primary. I heard him say, “So on to Chicago and let’s win there.” I turned off the television and went to bed.
The next morning my mother woke me to tell me that Robert Kennedy had been shot and lingered near death. Cynicism moved into the void left by those bullet holes. Belief can break your heart.
In 2004, I was on a whale watching vacation with my eleven year old grandson. We got back to the hotel early one evening because the young senate candidate from our home state of Illinois was giving the keynote speech at the Democratic Convention. Ty plunked himself on his side of the room with his Game Boy, while I began to watch the speech. I noticed after a few minutes that he had put down his Game Boy and was listening. Soon he was sitting right next to me, riveted by the powerful use of language. He was having his “Bobby” moment.
“He’s going to be president someday,” Ty said.
Wanting to save him the heartache, I explained that Barack Obama was new and unseasoned, that not even half a dozen African Americans had made it as far as the Senate. I didn’t add that there was nothing to indicate that the country had changed that much, that wild hopes existed to be dashed.
Barack Obama won that Senate seat. Two years later he declared his candidacy for President. After a hard fought primary battle, he won the party’s nomination.
I sat in front of the TV on election night and despite poll numbers to the contrary, I was sure he would not win. Early returns seemed to give credence to my doubt. But then . . .Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico–amazing. At 11:00 p.m. the networks called the election for Barack Obama. At 11:01 the phone rang.
My grandson, now fifteen. said, “Told you so, Grammy.”
We talked and laughed. I cried.
It’s been almost a week now since the election and my cynicism is slowly making a comeback. I need it too much to give it up completely. But those moments of belief that are able to pierce the armor? Those are pretty useful, too.