Obama's Notre Dame Speech

This past Sunday I flipped on the TV only to hear President Obama’s much awaited Notre Dame commencement speech. I was stopped in my tracks, only to be immensely moved. The president’s message is not new, and that is its very power. Obama’s message is one I encounter daily. It is one of love and grace and holding our hearts and minds open long enough so that we may see and hear others. Only then may we actually learn about others, even ourselves. Only then can we make progress in our communities.

Of course, the need to see and hear one another is often trumped by our own reflex to dominate, win at any cost, gain attention, and turn inward. It is not that we want to operate in this way; rather, it is that we get caught up in, sometimes swept away by, forces we believe are beyond our control. But things don’t need to be this way.

Take the “controversy” over Obama’s visit to Notre Dame. I had listened to various TV commentators and read numerous articles all dissecting whether Notre Dame, a Catholic university, should have invited Obama, a pro-choice politician, to their graduation ceremony. These very debates often had the markings of closed hearts and intolerance, on both sides. It’s not that people should relinquish their beliefs or argue their case less forcefully and less passionately.

Rather, the trap is that the very sense of “love” and “grace” and “hope” they seek to protect – no, actually which they profess to be spreading – is missing from their own words and deeds. How can that be? Is there no mirror in their homes for them to see their own actions? Do they not have ears to hear their overheated rhetoric? Have their hearts turned to stone? Obama observed yesterday that sometimes people have irreconcilable differences, that we cannot “fudge” certain divisions. True enough. Put any two people together and such differences can be found. Put millions of people together under a single roof, and call it the US, and those differences are seemingly endless.

Essentially what Obama was suggesting yesterday is the old “80/20” rule: don’t let the 20% of things we can’t agree on get in the way of the 80% we can.

He was also suggesting that we actually need each other. On this point, Obama quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. who said that we are each part of a “single garment of destiny.” But as I suspect MLK would say, merely embracing the sentiment is not enough; work is required. And this work is often highly uncomfortable for us. We may not like the others involved, their words may hurt us, their passions scare us, but we must stay engaged.

And we must bring with us a sense of openness and grace that keep our hearts open, and which afford us the possibility for the inexplicable or unimaginable to occur; or, more mundanely, simply create the conditions for common ground to be forged.

I urge you to read the Notre Dame speech, and to think about its message for our common work to repair breaches in society and make hope real for each and every person. The change we need begins with each of us.