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to rebuilding cities and greening our
communities. Though named for
its major sponsor, the bill was a bipartisan coup, a fact marked most
dramatically by the intriguing and patient collaboration between Senator
Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and his friend and frequent
ideological foe, Senator Orrin Hatch,
a Republican from Utah and coauthor of the bill.
Rarely in our history have people
rallied so cohesively across partisan
lines to try to make such good things
happen. Hatch himself called the
achievement a milestone—a nod to “a
keystone of our country’s traditions”
and a big stride toward “renewing
the can-do spirit” that in many ways
is the essence of true patriotism.
He’s got it right: for too long, patriotism has connoted an unfortunate jockeying about who best loves
liberty. But we seem to be wearying
of this aimless enervation of national spirit. Perhaps it was the accumulated grief of September 11, or
the terrible incentive of Hurricane
Katrina’s devastation, or the debacle of Wall Street. In times such as
these, when jobs, homes, and hopes
are sliding away, it is hard to ignore
our interdependence. If ever there
was a time to band together and be
inspired by do-gooders like Weller
and Gehring, or start a neighborhood watch, or a barter exchange, or
a modern-day bucket brigade, now
is that moment.
Polls show that a majority of us
subscribe to some version of charitable or volunteer service. And studies show that involvement makes us
happier. It even seems to be correlated with a longer life span.
But where to begin and how to
squeeze it in? The good news is that
no one has to do it all. We tend to
imagine that service means we can
make “a world of difference” all by
ourselves, or that it must be some
soaring moment of visible and im-
mediate transformation. This is a
punishing standard, and a paralyzing
one, unless we leaven our ideals with
humility and a sense of proportion.
Service can indeed mean putting
one’s life on the line in the military or
giving over one’s career to fostering
children. But it also includes smaller
but no less valuable contributions. It
includes the man who stops smoking,
stashes away a dollar every time he
has a hankering for a cigarette, and
gives the money to cancer research.
It includes the woman who uses her
backyard to teach children how to
grow lettuce, the neighbors who socialize on Saturday morning by picking up litter in their local park, the
college students who spend spring
break hanging dry wall in New Orleans, the bored middle schooler who
gets a spark of satisfaction working at
the local food bank.
There’s a lovely children’s tale
about a wanderer who comes to a
town where all the inhabitants cry
out that they are starving. The wanderer proclaims that stone soup is
just the thing. To the wonderment
of the townsfolk, he sets a large pot
in the middle of the square, fills it
with water, and places a stone in the
pot. Then he instructs the people
to go back to their homes and bring
whatever they can to flavor the stone.
This one brings a carrot; another, a
potato; someone else, a turnip—and
before long there is a bubbling stew
sufficient to feed all.
We Americans have all the ingredients for a magnificent stone soup.
But like Kay MacVey, 83, who with
her Ames, Iowa, friends has clipped
more than $1 million in coupons to
ease the PX grocery bills of military
families overseas, even more of us
must come to the public square
with the offering of our choice in
hand—some small contribution to
toss into what we have just begun to
appreciate is a rather magical, all-encompassing pot. ;
Patricia J. Williams is the James L. Dohr
professor of law at Columbia University
and a columnist for The Nation.