Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #027. First published in the St. Cloud Times Oct. 27, 2009

I recently returned from two weeks of sensory, intellectual and spiritual overload in India. At the end of the tour, our guide asked us to sum up India in one word. I said “Shiva,” the Hindu deity who oversees both creation and destruction.

No place on Earth is without ambiguity, but I doubt there are sharper contradictions anywhere.

Varanasi plausibly claims to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Someone from 4,000 or 5,000 years ago would likely find the daily religious rituals performed on the banks of the holy River Ganges familiar.

Yet India is at the forefront of technology. We saw high-rise buildings our guide identified as call centers, and I saw a young man slip out of an act of communal devotion to take a call on his cell phone.

The Times certainly didn’t send me to India, but throughout the trip I couldn’t forget that I would owe a column soon after I got back, and you may be as surprised as I am by my October focus.

On the other side of the planet (Varanasi is 177 degrees east of St. Cloud), you get a different perspective on America. The Indians have no doubt that our country is immensely consequential, but they have their own concerns, which can be as petty as the latest Bollywood celebrities’ love triangles and as intensely dangerous as the persistent tension between India and Pakistan.

Periodically we saw newspapers and occasionally a TV newscast. It was from these sources that we learned of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, his pondering the next steps in Afghanistan, and his personal attendance at the celebration of Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights, in the East Room of the White House, a gesture with enormous potential for winning good will.

Different take on prize

Like many Americans (including, apparently, the president himself), I wondered whether “it’s too soon” for the Nobel. But the Times of India, a national newspaper, looked from a fresh and intriguing angle.

It said the Nobel committee may have had in mind the disconnect between the enormous power of the United States and the general indifference of the American people to foreign affairs.

You may not agree that we are indifferent, but it is sobering to discover that a major journalistic voice in a country of 1,150,000,000 people thinks we are.

Perhaps, they surmised, the prize is meant to underscore for the American people the significance of Obama’s engagement with the rest of the world.

Our time in India coincided with the rapid escalation of terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The threat of all that volatility is, of course, palpable to those in the vicinity, but to hear the reports and realize that all of this was going on nearby highlighted the wisdom of our president’s concentration on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And here’s the surprising conviction that arose from my time in India. I am more persuaded even then I was when I worked for his election that we American people did ourselves and the whole world a favor when we made Barack Obama our president.

I trust Obama

While I yearn for peace, I’m skeptical of the effectiveness of war, shudder at the example of Vietnam, and don’t know what the president will decide about more troops, I will support his decision. I trust him.

He will have decided with care, with awareness that the world displays many shades of gray, and with a profound understanding of the international community of which we American people are a part.

While there is no prospect that Obama will escape criticism (and it would be dangerous if he did), it is not good for us or for the world if we don’t appreciate the boost he has given to our stature.

Our tour group, when young students and older people as well learned we are Americans, often heard, reinforced with smiles and thumbs up, “Barack Obama!”

A president with the style and grace to join in the national festival celebration of 17 percent of the world’s people is a treasure we should value.