A Waco reader writes:
You need to watch the speech Obama gave at the funeral for the West firefighters today. He closed with the idea that America needs small towns like West, where everyone knows everybody and can tell on each other’s kids, where neighbors raise money to pay for each other’s medical care. He spoke at length in this vein. It sounded to me like he may have read your book.
Now, I’m no fan of this President, but I had a strong urge to pray blessings on him and on his family this morning, and that God would speak healing words to our country through him and the other speakers at the funeral.
Amen! Though I doubt The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming has found its way onto the presidential reading list, I looked up the president’s remarks at the memorial service in West, and I see what she means. Excerpt:
Until last week, I think it’s fair to say that few outside this state had ever heard of West. And I suspect that’s the way most people in West like it. (Laughter and applause.) Now, it is true that weary travelers, and now the wider world, know they can rely on the Czech Stop for a brief respite in the middle of a long stretch of highway. I want to say, by the way, all the former Presidents in Dallas send their thoughts and prayers, and George W. and Laura Bush spoke longingly about the kolaches — (laughter) — and the even better company, as they’ve driven through West. And what they understand, and what all of you understand, is what makes West special is not the attention coming from far-flung places. What makes West special, what puts it on the map is what makes it familiar: The people who live there. The neighbors you can count on. Places that haven’t changed. Things that are solid and true and lasting.
Most of the people in West know everybody in West. Many of you are probably descended from those first settlers — hardy immigrants who crossed an ocean and kept on going. So for you, there’s no such thing as a stranger. When someone is in need, you reach out to them and you support them, and you do what it takes to help them carry on.
That’s what happened last Wednesday, when a fire alarm sounded across a quiet Texas evening. As we’ve heard, the call went out to volunteers — not professionals — people who just love to serve. People who want to help their neighbors. A call went out to farmers and car salesmen; and welders and funeral home directors; the city secretary and the mayor. It went out to folks who are tough enough and selfless enough to put in a full day’s work and then be ready for more.
And together, you answered the call. You dropped your schoolwork, left your families, jumped in fire trucks, and rushed to the flames. And when you got to the scene, you forgot fear and you fought that blaze as hard as you could, knowing the danger, buying time so others could escape. And then, about 20 minutes after the first alarm, the earth shook, and the sky went dark — and West changed forever.
I love this moment in West, in which we can all forget that we’re Republicans or Democrats, and remember that first and foremost, we are neighbors. Little Way is not a political book by any stretch — Ruthie didn’t have a political bone in her body — but there’s a politics in it, and it’s a politics that cannot be contained by partisanship and ideology. It’s an anti-political politics, in a way; Vaclav Havel defined anti-political politics as:
One such fundamental experience, that which I called ‘anti-political politics’, is possible and can be effective, even though by its very nature it cannot calculate its effect beforehand. That effect, to be sure, is of a wholly different nature from what the West considers political success. It is hidden, indirect, long term and hard to measure; often it exists only in the invisible realm of social consciousness, conscience and subconsciousness and it can be almost impossible to determine what value it assumed therein and to what extent, if any, it contributes to shaping social development. It is, however, becoming evident—and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance—that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters. It is becoming evident that even in today’s world, and especially on this exposed rampart where the wind blows most sharply, it is possible to oppose personal experience and the natural world to the ‘innocent’ power and to unmask its guilt, as the author ofThe Gulag Archipelago has done. It is becoming evident that truth and morality can provide a new starting point for politics and can, even today, have an undeniable political power. The warning voice of a single brave scientist, besieged somewhere in the provinces and terrorized by a goaded community, can be heard over continents and addresses the conscience of the mighty of this world more clearly than entire brigades of hired propagandists can, though speaking to themselves. It is becoming evident that wholly personal categories like good and evil still have their unambiguous content and, under certain circumstances, are capable of shaking the seemingly unshakeable power with all its army of soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats. It is becoming evident that politics by no means need remain the affair of professionals and that one simple electrician with his heart in the right place, honouring something that transcends him and free of fear, can influence the history of his nation.
To be sure, Havel was talking about resisting totalitarian communism; we’re, um … not. Still, I think there’s something to be learned here about how the example of the West firefighters, and the men and women like them in small towns and communities all over the country, make the partisan sniping and bickering that consumes so much of our attention and energy seem petty. I don’t mean to say that tragedies make all our real and important differences go away, dissolved in the kitsch of a Kum Ba Ya moment. They don’t. But what they do is help us to see the world, and these conflicts, in a different way, perhaps, and maybe even to see how we respond to them — in specifically, to those who are our opponents on any given issue — in a more human and gracious manner than we’ve been doing. As I’ve been saying since I started my book tour, I’ve been deeply impressed by the strangers I’ve met on the road, who talk openly to me about the burdens of grief and suffering they carry, and how they hope Little Way will help them lighten the load, or at least bear it. I’m not sure how this experience is going to change my political thinking, ultimately, but I am grateful for what it is helping me to see about my country, my neighbors, and myself.