As the federal government begins to emerge from a partial shutdown, satisfaction with America's political leadership is at a historic low. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 81 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. With anger, frustration and discord boiling over in Washington, many Americans are pessimistic about the future of our nation.
Frankly, I was feeling a little cynical myself.
I flew into a Washington airport a few days after the government shutdown began. With my first meeting about an hour away, I had a long cab ride ahead of me. To pass the time, I struck up a conversation with the driver, Israel. It is a conversation I will never forget.
I began by asking Israel what she thought about the government shutdown. She smiled and said, "In Ethiopia, my country, nobody disagrees. If you disagree with the people in power, you die." At first, I was startled by the juxtaposition of her smile with such a tragic statement. I quickly discovered that Israel was smiling because, in America, the politicians "fight with words instead of guns." Her attitude carried a calm certainty that the immediate political impasse in Washington could not be too bad because it had not erupted into violence.
She explained to me that Americans are not subject to the whims of self-serving politicians, but that Americans have a voice in their government and can express displeasure with their political leaders without fear of reprisal.
We spoke about her coming to America from Ethiopia 14 years ago. She shared a beautiful immigrant narrative of other Ethiopians coming to America, singing its praises to those back home, talking of American opportunity, and her hope of a better life. Israel contrasted an American dream of success for those willing to work with her experiences in a culture of bribes that stifled entrepreneurial aspiration.
The conversation then turned to our children. Israel was pleased to hear that I also had two boys a few years younger than hers. Her voice carried joy when she said, "In America you can read, go to the library, get a book in a hurry without payment." She said people would wait as long as a year for a chance to read a book where she was from in Ethiopia. How often do we celebrate something as simple as living in a nation where access, opportunity and even an expectation to become literate are so easily taken for granted?
"I try to get my boys to understand the opportunity they have," she said. Israel talked about the pitfalls and influences of drugs and crime that had claimed some of her relatives. She also noted the importance of working. She said it did not matter what the job was, but her boys needed "to work in order to see how the world works."
Israel's appreciation for America and the opportunity it holds lingers in my mind. In an odd way, her comments remind me of Lincoln's remarks at Gettysburg amidst the dark days of the civil war: it is our task to pursue a new birth of freedom in order that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
As the ride concluded, Israel left me with words I will not forget. She said, "If you use your freedom wisely, this country is good."