When was the last time you felt inspired? Not momentarily, like when you watch a video or read a story that gives you a temporary morale boost, but inspired deeply, in your gut, in a way that you know will impact you for a long time to come.
Given that the news coming from all corners is so dispiriting, I wish there was some way to bottle pills of long-lasting inspiration so we could all take a dose when we need it.
We sure have needed it lately. Daily tragedies have been making me feel tired and sad. Scrolling through my phone and watching the evening news gives me the urge to curl up in a cave and emerge sometime next spring, like a bear.
Then I went to Dallas.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center hosted an alumni reunion last week of a program called Presidential Leadership Scholars. I participated in the program’s inaugural class of 60 people in 2015. PLS is a joint initiative of the libraries of the two President Bush’s, President Bill Clinton and President Lyndon Johnson. The catalyst for its founding was borne of a meeting of the minds of the 42nd and 43rd presidents: Each realized that within their own experiences and within their administrations were boatloads of leaders and leadership lessons to share with folks who are hoping to drive positive, lasting civic and social change, in big and small ways.
Among the 250 plus people across eight classes gathered in Dallas were a former U.S. Marine who has been designated a foreign combatant by Russia for providing emergency medical kits to troops in Ukraine. There was a man who left big positions in government including in the Biden White House to run a charity that throws birthday parties for homeless children. And a woman, who has pushed from the inside of one of the world’s largest financial institutions for an abiding commitment to community-based loans. There were leaders who spend their days fighting human trafficking. There were filmmakers, writers and visual artists trying to connect us with words and images and the magic of creativity.
Presidents Bush and Clinton sat and took questions from us separately. Interestingly, both drew a parallel to these uncertain times with the late 60s, particularly 1968, when in the course of two months both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. College campuses were on fire. The war in Vietnam was raging. We got through that, each said in their own way, sharing some sense of assurance, that the rages of today, too, will pass.
President Clinton went into some great detail about the two-state solution he nearly brokered between Palestine and Israel — remember that handshake between Israel Prime Minister Rabin and Palestinian leader Arafat on the White House lawn? Oh, what a different world we’d live in if that expansive deal hadn’t been ultimately rejected at the last minute by Arafat.
Yet, President Clinton didn’t seem discouraged. Far from it. I took notes on my phone as he spoke and even now, looking back at them, I feel it again — my heart beating a little stronger in my chest, holding my head a little higher.
“There are no permanent victories or defeats,” he said. And then maybe I felt a bit like he was looking right at me, or at least the handful of alumnae who, like me, are in the final stages of their career when he added, “No matter what stage you are in, beginning, middle or end, it’s important to play on.”
President Clinton spoke of the concept of inclusive tribalism, which essentially acknowledges our differences but calls on us to double down on our interdependence and our common humanity. Or as he put it in a 2018 speech, “We must expand the definition of ‘us’ and shrink the definition of ‘them.’
“Life is not a play, it’s serious,” President Clinton concluded last week. “You have this life, you know you have it and you have to decide what to do with it.”
May we all be inspired, some way, somehow and despite it all, to play on.
Virginia Buckingham is the president of the Marblehead Current Board of Directors.
A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.”