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Get everyone an oar

Posted byWritten by David

As the events of 6 January unfolded and in the days since, I have gravitated to the words and acts of both John F. and Robert F. Kennedy. It’s clear from the insurgency on the Capitol that America is not working for everyone. Whether we fully understand the insurgents position or not, there’s a dangerous imbalance. 

JFK famously proclaimed during his Inaugural Address

“[M]y fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Of course, the rising tensions in Vietnam and the polarization of military conflict were the context of that line within the entirety of JFK’s speech that day. Over the years, that line has taken on a broader principle for how America might best function for all. 

In October 2018, I had the opportunity to join Patrick Kennedy and other addiction and behavioral health leaders at Brambletyde – one of the Kennedy homes at Hyannis Port. We discussed how employers and the employer-based insurance system needed changes if the addiction crisis was going to be meaningfully addressed. 

During that day, we were treated to a tour of the JFK Hyannis Museum. There are many highlights from that walk-through, but one in particular sticks out given the events of 6 January.

The former president of the museum, John Allen and I were having a conversation about Robert Kennedy’s “ripple of hope” line in his “Day of Affirmation Address” at the University of Capetown in 1966.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

I asked Mr. Allen how he summarizes the Kennedy’s two most famous statements and what they are calling us to do in our lifetime. 

He paused ever so slightly; enough time to let the spark of light and optimism fill his eyes, then said:

“It means we must work to get people an oar.” 

Everyone wants to feel useful and meaningful to something greater than ourselves. No one really wants to be the only one sitting in a boat, without an oar, not contributing to the rowing of that boat. 

Some people have ready access to their oar – others do not. 

Just because someone cannot access an oar does not make them any less than the rest of us. It’s the duty of the rest of us to make sure they get that oar. 

When we ask our country: “What can I do for you?” We’re not asking because we have the means to do that thing; we’re asking because we have the desire, we have the want to stand up, contribute, and send forth another tiny ripple of hope. 

America is not working for most. Most do not have an oar. Everyone needs an oar. 

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