What Obama's Grandmother Tells Us

I've resisted writing this piece today, but as I sat down to type this morning, it has just poured out. Just 24 hours before Election Day, the nation learned that Senator Barack Obama's grandmother passed away, unable to experience the (expected) joy of watching her grandson become the next president of the United States. But her death at this late moment in the campaign introduced something that can easily be lost in campaigns and governing, and which our country so desperately needs: a renewed sense of humanity. My resistance in writing this piece is because I feel that I should be talking about the larger history Obama might make tonight, or the larger trends that are at work in this election cycle, or the larger meaning of this election for people doing public work on the ground. Writing about his grandmother? Yes, I confess I am pulled in that direction this morning.

The senator stands at the precipice of monumental achievement in what seems like an unfolding fable. He is the young man who experienced an incredible rise to power, and ready to claim to the "brass ring," only to be profoundly brought back to earth by his grandmother's death. As the whole nation looked on, he had to navigate his mixed emotions and keep his bearings.

But, alas, this is not a fable. Senator Obama and the rest of us are reminded of our common fragility and mortality. We are reminded that even amid the pundits' bluster, campaign tactics, and hopes that our candidate (whoever that is) will win, people remain at the center of all this. Perhaps the central character in this unfolding drama has been reminded of this reality as a stand-in for the rest of us.

But the message is really to us, not simply the senator and potential president. The loss of Senator Obama's grandmother reminds us what our work is about: that each child needs caring adults in their life; that expert-driven policies are actually about real individuals and families; that communities provide the support system for people to live and flourish, and thus we must tend to the health of communities; that not everyone has the same opportunities in our land.

It is easy for people to get pushed aside in our politics and public life. Our strength is gauged by how we outfox our opponents, or can get funding for our efforts, or gain publicity. Sure, each of these is needed at different times. But they are not what our efforts are about.

If want to make progress, any kind of progress, then we must return a greater sense of humanity in our politics and public life. We need to see and hear each other again. We need to resist mechanistic responses that deny people's ability to truly engage and express their aspirations and concerns. We need empathy -- not sympathy that asks us to take up each other's cause, but a willingness to understand a different perspective and to welcome different insights. We need to be willing to think about the common good, and not just own good.

Yesterday, in Charlotte, Senator Obama called his grandmother a "quiet hero" and "the person who encouraged and allowed us to take chances." Each of us needs to be the quiet hero to return a sense of humanity back in our public life and politics. All good fables tell us that the hero can never make it on his or her own; there are always quiet heroes involved in any journey.