“Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about an essay I read a long time ago. I must have been in 8th or 9th grade when my mom came home with a college entrance composition she promised a student of hers she would proofread. Entitled “Strawberry Fields Forever,” it bore no resemblance to the dreamlike (or LSD filled) fantasyland of the Beatles’s song. It was the story of a girl who spent long days in high-school classrooms, and even longer afternoons in Santa Maria’s fields picking strawberries, broccoli, and lettuce. It’s an essay that has stayed with me in the 15 or so years since I picked it up off the kitchen table to read.
The girl who wrote that essay later went on to attend and graduate from UCLA. Isn’t that incredible?! Born to migrant farmworkers, indefatigable laborers who toil unremittingly and thanklessly, this girl spent a childhood thinking her future held nothing but endless rows of strawberries to be picked.
But somewhere along the way, that changed. At some point, someone took her aside and told her she was special. At some point, she realized that she was the master of her own future. At some point she learned that she herself could alter her path, educate herself, change her world.
Americans are so lucky. We grow up believing that we can do anything. We could be doctors or movie stars; we could run a business or even be president some day. We grow up believing that we can change the world, and because we believe it so entirely, we can really make it happen.
This past week witnessed the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Now, I’m about 25 years too young to remember that day, but that doesn’t mean that his death doesn’t have a strong emotional effect on me. He is the president who diverted nuclear war with the Soviet Union (a land which I would later call home, so I’m infinitely relieved it didn’t get blown off the face of the earth), who encouraged space exploration, who promoted the arts, and who helped end segregation. And of course, he started that little organization known as the Peace Corps. “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” he challenged us.
In honor of this great man’s life and death, I went back and looked up his inaugural address. It was the first time I read the entire text from which his well-known one-liner originated. It was a beautiful speech. Filled with hope for a better world, one full of with peace, justice, and equality; it demonstrated that Kennedy was also one who believed that individual people could change the world. Although born to privilege himself, he seemed to believe that all people could be whomever they want. That a person can change not only her own world, but the world entire.
I loved being a Peace Corps Volunteer. I got to spend my days teaching kids about the world. I got to show them what it meant to be a leader. I got to watch them learn how to be healthy, strong, and successful. I got to share a little bit of Kennedy’s bright-eyed, big-dreamer American spirit with my Ukrainian brothers and sisters. I encouraged them to always try harder and think bigger, and was rewarded by witnessing them become empowered and self-aware.
I’ve devoted a significant chunk of my life toward working for social justice and equality. I’ve spent a fair amount of my words saying I’m passionate about sustainability and global solidarity. But in the last few months, I think I’ve been distracted from those passions. I got busy and lost, muddling my way through my own life’s challenges and turmoil.
In the past weeks I’ve been writing a lot. Not the fun kind of writing, but the self-aggrandizing, self-promoting type that goes along with grad school personal statements. I’ve been writing about me, me, me—professing I’m special, desirable, unique. Am I? Aren’t we all just variations on a theme? Aren’t we all muddling our way through life, similarly stumbling towards some ultimate destination?
Well, yes. But those very variations are what make us unique. Our individual accomplishments and anecdotes are the reason our world is beautiful. We all have weaknesses. Sometimes we stumble and fall; we forget our passions and ultimate goals. But we also all have strengths. It’s those varying strengths and unique achievements that JFK saw, that he knew when combined would better the world. And somewhere in the middle of writing about my work with OHALOW, female empowerment, and HIV/AIDS education, I remembered some of the accomplishments that do indeed make me special.
The first step towards social justice is realizing that we ourselves are unique. Only when we realize our own self-worth can we in turn show others theirs.
So, even though I know there will be detours and stop signs, I’m continuing toward my life’s goal of striving for a more beautiful and peaceful world. And I hope that somewhere along my own path in life, I too encourage someone to realize that life doesn’t have to be strawberry fields forever. Life can be whatever you want it to be.
JFK was right: we can all change the world.
“To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. “
Interested in changing the world? Educate yourself and do something!
Click here to donate to a camp that sends HIV-positive Ukrainian kids to a summer camp that will change their lives,
here to learn why November 19th is designated World Toilet Day,
here to be inspired again that arts education is indescribably important,
or here to read and watch Kennedy’s inaugural speech.