By Sister Pat Kenny
Those among us who heard President John F. Kennedy give his inaugural address probably remember several lines that held a particular meaning or had a poetic flair. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” “The torch has been passed to a new generation.” “We do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.”
I was in my twenties when I listened to that address, part of that new generation, still in my first fervor in religious life and ready and willing to do whatever it took to meet the challenges ahead. But that last quote, the one about doing hard things because they were hard, gave me pause. Why, I wondered, do we choose to reach beyond the norm? That generation was replete with champions in every field of endeavor—politics, sports, social justice, literature and drama, finance and industry. Many came from unlikely beginnings with few opportunities and many obstacles stacked in their way, but they set their goals high and rose like the stars they became.
Now, in our time, when challenges are stacked in our paths and obstacles seem endless, how are we going to meet them? Like Lincoln and Armstrong and King, we need to assess what resources we have, what goals we want to meet and what it will take to achieve them. We also need to be sure these goals are worthy of our efforts. Personal goals will bring us satisfaction, attention, perhaps even fame and fortune. Goals we will share with others, with a much wider scope and impact, may lead us by a road littered with disappointments and disillusion. But in the end, we must choose: the way Robert Frost described, well-travelled or less travelled; the way that will improve my life or the way that will improve many lives.
In my experience, young people are hard-wired to want to better the world, to leave their mark in a way people will remember with gratitude. They take chances, they run dangerous risks, they revel in each success and use failures to spark new efforts. They have a philosophical approach that assumes that, with a little more effort or by trying something different, they will find success. I well remember the day my math teacher returned a test on which I had earned a barely passing grade. “Stick to the English, Patricia” was her advice. I did and never regretted it.
When we move into the middle years of life, cave against the force of pressures we hadn’t factored into our plans and grow somewhat cynical about the worth of trying so hard, that’s the tipping point. That’s the time when we are most vulnerable to compromise. “Maybe this is the best I can do.” And when we reach our sunset years, it’s all too easy to say, “I’m afraid I’m past that now.” That’s when we need to find inspiration in words like Kennedy’s or maybe the words to a Dan Schutte song that begins, “Give us faith, Lord, when the mountain’s too high; be our hope, Lord, when the road is too long; teach us love, Lord, let it flame in our hearts and shine to your glory, O Lord.”