Thursday, January 22, 2009

On answering the call to serve.

During his campaign for president, Barack Obama asked the American people to give of themselves to help steer us out of this national funk we're in. Service, he said, helps us help our fellow citizens, lifts our spirits, benefits the economy, and fosters a sense of responsibility in America's destiny.

I didn't need to be told that by President Obama. The benefits of service and altruism, to me, are self-evident. But that's not the case with a lot of Americans. Many are complacent enough to let others do the serving, while they reap the benefits of a prosperous country.

What happens, then, when your country isn't so prosperous? Is it then time to get off your duff and do something worthwhile?

It's a shame it's come to this, but if an economic downturn, and a "sapping of confidence across our land," are what's needed to get Americans mobilized, then so be it. Let them take a share in country's future - as they should have all along.

Obama used Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a call to arms for all Americans: do something above and beyond yourself. Use Dr. King's legacy to serve the underserved. A lot of Americans answered the call.

But I imagine more didn't. And no matter how many times the president asks us to serve, there will be those who seek excuses for not serving. I'll bet some won't even be shy about it.

During the last administration, the most Bush asked us to do was to grab our credit cards, start shopping, and shut the damn up about Constitutional abuses. We were asked to give nothing up in response to the Afghanistan and Iraq War, except the lives of our young people and our standing in the world. We sacrificed little. Maybe that's why the cries for the war to end have been relatively quiet. Why cry when you have little to cry about?

Now a lot of people are hurting, and perhaps Obama's message - that we're in this together, that it will take a collective effort to get us out of this mess - will be respected. There's plenty of blame to go around, but a heart attack patient doesn't weep long over the pizza and beer of a previous life. Instead, he gets busy shaping up. That's what America needs.

One of my online/Mac/humor heroes, Merlin Mann, said it well:
Maybe what we really need is somebody to tell us it’s time to grow up, to think about how the rest of the world operates, and to accept that being a country of adults means doing a ton of insanely hard work and making sacrifices where not everybody wins.

So what to do? How can each of us assist in beating the "general malaise," as President Carter once understood it, and fight the "crisis in confidence?"

The options are endless, really, and it depends on where your heart find the most joy. Marketer Seth Godin has a few ideas, and some ideas are very difficult at all. You could do as the Coudal Partners suggest and simply put your hard-earned money where your mouth is. Do you seek confidence in the strength of the American market? Fine. Pay up or shut up.

Chances are, however, that your efforts can do the most good not too far from where you're sitting right now. Time and time again, I talk to local non-profits and businesses and hear the need in their voices: shop here, give here, help us out.

My advice? Go where your talents can do the most good. Or, go and do something that you've never done before. Just do something. Not all of us can be Ben Franklin, who gave so much of his time, talent, and attention that we put him - a guy who never became president - on our currency. But you don't need to be Ben Franklin to make a different somewhere. Try this: one night a week, for an hour or two, give your time to a cause you care about. Just one night a week, turn off the TV, set your video game down, get out of your living room, and put yourself to work - for free - on a project.

If you do this already, great. Your country thanks you. Keep doing it, and do a bit more if you can afford to.

But if you don't usually do this kind of thing, and even if you didn't vote for or support President Obama, answer his call to service. If you don't, nothing will happen. No one will hate you. America will carry on as before.

And that's exactly what I'm afraid of.

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