President's Message from the 2003-2004 Biennial Report

Thursday, July 1, 2004 - 18:00

We Americans don't use the word “civic” very much. It too often modifies terms that clash with our all-too-individualistic culture. Terms like “duty” and “obligation.” We instinctively respond: “Isn't the highest duty in a capitalist democracy to pursue one's own self-interest?” And off we traipse to vote our pocketbooks while all pretense of civic integrity disintegrates around us.

And what about humility? Doesn't that suggest subservience? Certainly it does, and that's damn near intolerable in a society that insists we stand tall in defense of our singular self-sufficiency. The idea of bowing before something greater than what is distinctively “me” clatters as it lands on our minds.

Yet surrounding us in its vastness is a social, political and economic landscape beckoning – begging – to be tended. But before we can appreciate how difficult and rewarding answering that call can be, we must experience civic humility.

Maybe you know what that's like. It's when the gargantuan complexities of real people and electoral politics finally dawn on you and, after stumbling around a while trying to learn what's really happening out there, you start connecting the dots in an utterly different way than before. Or you trot out a really great idea for fixing things and discover (with a bit of embarrassment) that the power needed to put a good idea into action never comes without a struggle. And good idea or not, the change you seek will be limited if you try to go it alone.

Civic humility is that jarring moment of clear sight when the sheer sweep of child poverty takes your breath away. From then on you're plagued by a sense of injustice, reading every newspaper article about the economy through a much more critical lens. It's the moment your trust turns to anguish at the sure knowledge of official bullying, corporate greed, or deliberate governmental abuse. You swear not just to stand up in defiance, but commit yourself to a fine and righteous cause – and forever after act with measure and with meaning. It's when you humble yourself before the tide of everyday community life and plunge headlong into the common enterprise, your eyes wide open and your hands gripped tight to those of other people around you. When you get there and scan the horizon for an able ally, you'll find us there too, ready to receive your grasp, ready to reach out with ours.

Having achieved civic humility, you think no longer solely in terms of “I,” but establish a healthy alliance with a meaningful, often restive “we.” You experience an infinite sense of obligation to humanity that grows stronger with exercise. You serve without subservience. And you do good better than you ever could alone.