TO: BARACK OBAMA
FR: SHARIF ABDULLAH
RE: SOME ADVICE ON FORGING A COMMON WAY AHEAD
Yes, congratulations, you made history, yada, yada, yada. Not to diminish your amazing accomplishment, but since you’ve heard it all so many times by now, I won’t dwell on it (although, if you and I had a few hours, I COULD!)
No, I would rather not take up your time on that. I have a few pieces of advice for you. If I had five minutes of your time, the following is what I would say to you directly.
But first, who am I to be offering you advice? I have been exploring our need for a value-driven, inclusive and sustainable society for decades, including as Founder and Executive Director of Commonway Institute. The title to my second book sums up my philosophy and my life goal: “Creating a World That Works for All”. I offer my counsel to you.
ADVICE #1: REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE
This part goes without saying: while you are in fact the first African-American President (Elect) of the US, that is an IDENTITY, it is not the core essence of who you are. One day, even being President will be a past accomplishment. You, however, will still be you.
You are the first President (Elect) of the 21st Century – I expect you to act like it. (We obviously aren’t going to count the last 8 years. We are now seeing the close of the last Presidency of the 19th Century). As the first 21st Century President, you will set the model for all of the other Presidents to follow. Aim high.
Bill Clinton was a very admirable bridge between the 20th and 21st Centuries. There are many advisors around you who would like to copy those times. Don’t listen to them. Your arc must be higher.
ADVICE #2: BARACK OBAMA – CATALYST IN CHIEF
In our days of fear and ignorance, many Americans needed a “Commander in Chief”, the father figure to command and control their lives. Now, we have just elected you, our first “Catalyst in Chief”. We don’t need you to “lead” or “command”. We know that the federal bureaucracy is virtually ungovernable and incomprehensible. (Of course, we do expect you to do your job and govern as best as a human being can.)
We most need you to display the skills that you demonstrated so well during the primaries and election: the ability to inspire, to engage and to motivate an entire movement of people to act.
It is indeed comforting that your heroes are similar to mine. I too am inspired by the words and deeds of Abraham Lincoln. He presided over the US when it underwent its most painful transition (to date). Now seen as one of our greatest Presidents, he was HATED by half of the country – the half that could not face the future, the half that could not live up to the vision laid down by the Founders in the Declaration of Independence.
I remind you of Lincoln so that you can remember to inspire – even though many of our fellow citizens would rather revile you than listen to you. Right now, they CAN’T listen to you – they can’t get past the color of your skin. However, they too will change. They too are caught on the arc of history. They will forget their hate – it simply is not sustainable. We can wait them out – time is on our side.
ADVICE #3: DON’T LET THE WEASELS GET YOU DOWN
You are a man, a model and a symbol. You symbolize and personify our quest for a new vision for our society, a vision that is hopeful, practical, inclusive and sustainable.
You need advisors who hold all of the above qualities, who can think outside the box.
I know that you have many “real-world” political advisors surrounding you – they are needed, they are necessary and you could not effectively govern without them. But, don’t let them be your sole source of advice – we didn’t vote for you so that you could fill the White House with the old political crowd (Democrats or Republicans).
You need advisors who can think outside the box (who actually don’t even recognize that there IS a box!) Balance your team with visionaries, ones with some dirt under their fingernails from doing real work in the world. There is a real difference between a visionary with achievements versus a visionary with just dreams. You need doers, not just talkers.
ADVICE #4: YOU ARE NOT A “CENTRIST”
Neither the “Right” nor the “Left” have the vision for an America that works for all. Both the Left and the Right have flawed, myopic, partial viewpoints. But, paradoxically, both the Left and the Right hold key elements to the future of this country; they hold parts of the solution. Neither side should be dismissed out of hand.
Your job is to get the dinosaurs to play well together. Only together can those Left-Right viewpoints be transcended, harmonized, and resolved into one greater image.
You know that the traditional “Democratic” and “Republican” parties are outmoded and out of step with 21st Century realities. You know that your campaign for the Presidency has ignited a passion for politics (with the small “p”) that the major parties cannot understand, let alone harness. You know that you can harness this energy.
Your job is not to sit between these two warring camps. Your job is to sit ABOVE them. You are not a “centrist”. You are a “trans-centrist”. Let’s elevate the conversations beyond the uninspiring rhetoric that has been such a turn-off for many in the electorate. (I quote in my book a line from the movie “Slackers”: “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy”.) Your candidacy hit the “on” switch for tens of millions of us. And, you can help keep us turned on.
Of course, you will have to drag the mainstream media, kicking and screaming, into this new viewpoint. They still can’t comprehend what your victory means for America. Yesterday, CNN was reporting on how “black” churches were celebrating your election, completely missing the fact that there were at least a few “white” churches that were just as celebratory. They can’t see it. You can. WE can. And the media will, too… eventually.
ADVICE #5: YOU ARE THE LEADER OF A MOVEMENT
As you correctly stated, your job as President doesn’t start until mid-January. (Do not deny Bush the opportunity to further lower his poll ratings or to increase his historic position as the worst president in modern history. It’s his karma.)
However, you are not just “President” — you are also the leader of a movement. That job started decades, perhaps centuries, ago – it has just reached a powerful nexus point.
I started in this movement to save our human family and our planet 45 years ago (yes, you were 2 years old). The movement will continue when both of us are dust. This movement is the legacy that we leave to your daughters and my grandsons.
Unless there is a transformation in how we interact with each other, with our neighbors, with the Earth and with the Divine, those young ones have no future. Once we make these transformations, the future for our children and grandchildren is limitless.
Your role in the movement is obvious: KEEP IT MOVING. The politicos will want the people to sit down, shut up, and “leave it to the pros”. RESIST THIS. The movement for an inclusive, sustainable and loving society will not wait. Leading this movement is the single most important thing that you can do as President. It far exceeds any piece of legislation, any Executive Order, any policy initiative of your Administration.
Although you take the Oath of Office in January, you can stimulate and catalyze this movement RIGHT NOW. Don’t wait for the Inauguration – put us to work.
ADVICE # 6: TAKE THE FIRST STEPS
What you can do, right now, is catalyze a community, regional and national dialog on the fundamental issues facing us as we enter the 21st Century. (Given your present world stature, this dialog could be global.) Ask us: what can we do, on the local level, to address our social, political, economic, ecological and spiritual mega-crises?
This dialog would NOT be: “What must government do for us?” (You are about to find out how little government can actually do!) But, by bringing the conversation to the local level, you can catalyze building the most powerful people’s movement America (and the world) has yet seen.
So, what are these first steps?
- Dialogs on Food, Water and Energy Security. Every community should know where its food, water and energy come from. Every community should launch discussions on how they can achieve sustainability on the local and regional levels. From these dialogs, each community should develop plans for local sustainability for food, water and energy.
- Dialogs on the Future of Economics. All of our media-driven discussions on our economics have been focused on fear and insecurity. Most of our “rescue” attempts are aimed at reviving a system based in waste and greed. It’s time to re-define economics, to focus on hope, vision, and the realities human beings in the 21st Century.
- In my work with Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka, we are experimenting with something I’m calling “relational economics”. The economics of people who are in actual relationship with each other. Economics not controlled by individuals, corporations or by the State. Economics at the community level. (A side piece of advice for you: to stimulate a community-based relational economics, your stimulus packages should be based on community, not on individuals or governments.)
- Dialogs on Healing. How do we heal our society? After years spent in a wrong-headed and meaningless war, the men and women in our military are hurt, bruised, confused, angry and sick. After decades of divisiveness, our politics is fractured and visionless. Our legacy of slavery and American-style Apartheid continues to haunt us. The pending economic collapse hangs over our head like a crushing weight. We must atone for the pain and damage we have caused the Earth. In the face of this, healing is necessary. We all share the pain and we all can, through the exercise of compassion, share in the healing. Asking us to engage in healing dialogs can serve as a start to this long-term process.
- Dialogs on Our Vision for Our Society. According to Thomas Jefferson, our present Constitution was meant to last only one generation. He believed that every generation should re-write the Constitution.
We are long overdue.
We obviously cannot start with a Constitutional Convention – that would be suicidal. Most Americans have spent so much time as “consumers” instead of “citizens”, we no longer recognize the principles that lie at the foundations of our society. (This is why President Bush could get away with using the Constitution like toilet paper – most of us didn’t know what was in it to begin with.) We are going to have to start over again – to teach ourselves to become the intelligent, informed citizenry that Jefferson and the other Founders envisioned.
We can start with an interactive national dialog on “American Vision and Values”. According to the Bible, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29: 18). You can catalyze a dialog process with teeth – the people need not perish.
ADVICE #7: DON’T FORGET TO BREATHE.
I strongly encourage every person who works with me to have a daily meditation practice. It is the best (perhaps only) way to stay focused on the long haul, to not get caught up in the swirling madness of our times. It is the best way to stay true to our common mission: to create a world that truly works for all beings.
PS: Incidentally – if you are interested in my help with any of the above, please do not hesitate to call.