Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Neither of the parents of the man who is inaugurated today were religious -- at least not in the sense of belonging to a conventional faith. But listen to Barack Obama describing his mother, in The Audacity of Hope:
And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I've ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct, sometimes to her detriment. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice, and scorned those who were indifferent to both.

Most of all, she possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that could properly be described as devotional. During the course of the day, she might come across a painting, read a line of poetry, or hear a piece of music, and I would see tears well up in her eyes. Sometimes, as I was growing up, she would wake me up in the middle of the night to have me gaze at a particularly spectacular moon, or she would have me close my eyes as we walked together at twilight to listen to the rustle of the leaves. She loved to take children -- any child -- and sit them in her lap and tickle them or play games with them or examine their hands, tracing out the miracle of bone and tendon and skin and delighting at the truths to be found there. She saw mysteries everywhere and took joy in the sheer strangeness of life.
If the son internalized the mother's gift -- to see mysteries everywhere and take joy in the sheer strangeness of life -- I happily give him my support and best wishes for success. A sense of wonder is not a sufficient qualification to be president of the United States, but it suggests a quality of mind that might be conducive to conciliation and inspiration, qualities that are essential to effective and humane leadership.