An American Voice

I have taken somewhat of an unplanned hiatus from writing these past few weeks. Unplanned because it has been events that have taken my voice from me in a way they have only two times in my life before.

Both times my voice fell silent before it was because the confluence of personal loss and professional stress combined to drain me to the point where it was hard muster the energy to write. When my batteries are charged, the words flow effortlessly onto the page. When those same storehouses of energy are empty, it’s drudgery to write – in fact, difficult to communicate at all.

January 6, 2021, was another one of those word-killing days for me. The insurrection at the Capitol drained me. Watching the mob fed on months of lies attempting to disrupt the Congress doing their constitutional duty robbed me of any emotion besides anger and sadness.  I was upset because some of my fellow Americans thought that violence was the answer to their political defeat and upset the people even now who seek to use their followers’ ignorance and disappointment for political gain.

It was among the worst day of my life as an American.

I experienced similar emotions after 9/11 when, as a student at Air Command and Staff College, I was unable to do anything but watch helplessly on television as the enemy attacked our country. After 9/11, I had the chance to do something and the day filled me with resolve. I deployed to the Middle East the following summer. After 1/6, however, I was simply cloaked in melancholy at the state of our country and my fellow Americans at each other’s throats. Until that young poet saved the day.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

National Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman

Another Annus Horribilis

As Americans, we’ve been here before.

In December of 1968, the Apollo 8 crew made the first crewed orbit of the Moon. That year had seen similar levels of unrest in our country as the Civil Rights and anti-war movements reached their crescendo. The war in Vietnam turned up in intensity that year as well, beginning with the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive in January, Dr Martin Luther King’s assassination in April, RFK’s assassination in June, and the violence at the Democratic Party’s convention in Chicago. As young men came home from Vietnam scarred by war, or under flag-draped caskets, our country reeled from political and social unrest. The pure ugliness of racism, hatred, division, anger, and death hung over the country like a fogbank. By December, Americans were emotionally spent – disillusioned, saddened, angry, and hurt. It was by any account, a horrible year – an annus horribilis

In the midst of all of that, NASA was still running neck and neck with the Soviet space program to reach the Moon. Apollo 8 was originally intended to be a second test of the spacecraft in Earth orbit, but as the Lunar Module was delayed NASA elected to shift the Apollo 8 mission to a lunar orbit mission. On Christmas Eve Apollo 8 Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William A. Anders knew they needed to do something to mark the moment when humans first left Earth and circled the Moon. The flight plan called for them to be in lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, so they selected the first ten verses from the First Chapter of Genesis in the Bible. This passage is shared by the three great religions of the Earth, as well as several others, so the crew reasoned it would speak to the planet in a way their own words might not have. Their words were broadcast to millions along with the video of the Earth rising above the lunar horizon on millions of tv sets. Their message ended with, “God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.” It was the right message at the right time. As USAF Colonel and Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman reported later the crew received thousands of good wishes, among them a telegram that simply read, “You saved 1968.” I tend to agree.

“We got millions of telegrams after we landed, but the one I remember most was, ‘Congratulations to the crew of Apollo 8. You saved 1968.’ We didn’t save it [ourselves] — but a lot of the people who made Apollo work saved it.”

Frank Borman, Apollo 8 astronaut

Thank You, Amanda. You Saved 2021

Inauguration Day dawned bright and cold in our Nation’s Capitol. For a week the news was full of reports of arrests from the Capitol Insurrection and FBI warnings of “chatter” from far-right groups communicating about another attack. I held my breath and hoped the insurrectionists were deterred from their plans by the police and military presence. Thankfully, it seems they were deterred and there were no demonstrations and no violence. The day’s quiet was a welcome respite from the ugliness of years of partisan warfare – what President Biden called an “uncivil war” in his speech.

But for all the pomp and circumstance, and for the “normalcy” it represented, the shining moment for me came when Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman stood at the lectern. Her poem, The Hill We Climb, captured the moment and my heart so brilliantly, that to attempt to comment on it seems superfluous. I’m not given to emotion at these events – frankly, I’ve heard the same “change of command” speech so often I could write one in a few minutes – but that poem!  

What Ms. Gorman wrote and delivered that day was nothing less than a cleansing of our souls as Americans, in the same way the crew of Apollo 8 reminded us of our shared humanity. She acknowledged our imperfection and shortcomings, yes, but also reminded us of our ability to live up to our Founding Ideals. She also reminded us that when we give up our anger and seek to find common ground with each other, we are that City on a Hill that Ronald Reagan said we are. She reminded us that to be American is not merely a birthright – it is a charge to keep. It was one of those singular moments in history I will never forget.

If you haven’t seen or heard her words, then take a few minutes and listen. Let yourself be inspired again. Let yourself love our country and our fellow Americans.

Thank you, Amanda, you saved 2021.

The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman

National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman at Presidential Inauguration

Mickey is an expert in leadership and organizational change. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. Mickey now works with clients around the country to improve performance and help organizational transformation. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC. Mickey is the author of eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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