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Beacon of Hope

No better time than an election year to put our best foot forward.By Catherine McCall

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Catherine's commentary.]

In times past I?ve been as cynical as the next person, especially when it comes to national politics. Quick to criticize and slow to listen, I have thrown my share of gasoline into the political fire. I?ve done my share of disrupting otherwise delightful family dinners.

These were luxurious, mischievous stunts, I now realize, for all of us on the left and right alike. Our problems of the times seemed big because our indulgent, inflammatory bickering made them so.

The tragedy of 9-11 changed that. It shook us awake and made us look around. For one solid moment, we saw each other. We saw ourselves as much of the world sees us?open, trusting, helpful. We also saw ourselves as part of the family of the world, vulnerable to deadly envy and lethal hate.

Whether we like to think about it or not, we as America have a relationship with every nation in the world. With any relationship comes responsibility and reward.

Several of the speeches given last week at the Democratic National Convention stirred the patriot inside me. Several of them rubbed away a rust of disillusionment and exposed that deeper shine of pride in my country and hope for our humanity.

I was especially moved by the words of Nobel Peace prize winner Jimmy Carter and former secretary of State Madeline Albright. They each spoke from their experiences of traveling throughout the world, from seeing firsthand the power not only of American intervention and assistance, but of what America stands for to vast numbers of people in the world.

Their words reminded me of a man I met when I visited Durban, South Africa four years ago. He was a young, black African with a wide, generous smile and he was one of many waiters at the hotel where I was staying. Most of the other waiters had to use alternative English names like Edith, Gloria, and John because their Zulu names did not have an equivalent English translation.

The young man I was especially drawn to had a name that in English meant Praisewell. He had a countenance that was both quieting and full of hope as he kindly poured tea for me every morning. He told me about his name and pronounced it in his native tongue of Zulu. A melodious clucking sound floated from his lips and he laughed when I tried clumsily to imitate him.

Our conversation could not go far because of barriers of language so we had to communicate by gesture, smile and intent. We were curious about the other, I know, and I will never forget the expression on his face when he asked where I was from. His eyes widened and he repeated the word softly, as if he was seeing a person not from another nation from another planet: America.

We all know that America is not Mecca; it is a place and an idea, a real nation and a magical one. It is a place where people plant their dreams?even people who live thousands of miles and two oceans away. As Madeline Albright and others reiterated last week, America is a beacon of hope to so many people around the world.

It is time that we restore that beacon, not only for the world but also for ourselves. We do not have all the answers, as much as we and others might think that we do. We simply have each other: our ideals, our hopes, and our beautiful differences. In this important election season, if we can engage one another with a desire to learn, even as we disagree, we will be acting in a way that is worthy of our name: America.

Catherine McCall is a psychiatrist.