Essay by Karen Armstrong. In November 2007, I heard that I had won a prize. Each year TED (the acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design), a private nonprofit organization best known for its superb conferences on "ideas worth spreading," gives awards to people whom they think have made a difference but who, with their help, could make even more of an impact. Other winners have included former U.S. president Bill Clinton, the scientist E. O. Wilson, and the British chef Jamie Oliver.
While some have referred to Frost’s poem for Kennedy as “stiff and dutiful,” Maya Angelou’s inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning” was seen as multicultural, emotionally and involving.
On the Pulse of the Morning
A Rock, A River, A Tree Hosts to species long since departed, Marked the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens Of their sojourn here On our planet floor, Any broad alarm of their hastening doom Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully, Come, you may stand upon my Back and face your distant destiny, But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no more hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than The angels, have crouched too long in The bruising darkness, Have lain too long Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spilling words Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out today, you may stand on me, But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world, A River sings a beautiful song, Come rest here by my side.
Each of you a bordered country, Delicate and strangely made proud, Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit Have left collars of waste upon My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside, If you will study war no more. Come,
Clad in peace and I will sing the songs The Creator gave to me when I and the Tree and the stone were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your Brow and when you yet knew you still Knew nothing.
The River sings and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew The African and Native American, the Sioux, The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh, The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher, The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher. They hear. They all hear The speaking of the Tree.
Today, the first and last of every Tree Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the River.
Plant yourself beside me, here beside the River.
Each of you, descendant of some passed On traveler, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name, you Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, you Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of Other seekers--desperate for gain, Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot ... You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the Tree planted by the River, Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree I am yours--your Passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, and if faced With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon The day breaking for you.
Give birth again To the dream.
Women, children, men, Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most Private need. Sculpt it into The image of your most public self. Lift up your hearts Each new hour holds new chances For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever To fear, yoked eternally To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward, Offering you space to place new steps of change. Here, on the pulse of this fine day You may have the courage To look up and out upon me, the Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day You may have the grace to look up and out And into your sister's eyes, into Your brother's face, your country And say simply Very simply With hope Good morning.
The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are...staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.
George Washington, First Inaugural Address, 1789
I believe [the U.S. is]...the strongest Government on earth. I believe it is the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.
Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, 1801
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address on March 4, 1865
I hold that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, that the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination."
Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861
Democracy is not dying. We know it because we have seen it revive -- and grow. We know it cannot die -- because it is built on the unhampered initiative of individual men and women joined together in a common enterprise -- an enterprise undertaken and carried through by the free expression of a free majority. We know it because democracy alone, of all forms of government, enlists the full force of men's enlightened will. We know it because democracy alone has constructed an unlimited civilization capable of infinite progress in the improvement of human life. We know it because, if we look below the surface, we sense it still spreading on every continent -- for it is the most humane, the most advanced, and in the end the most unconquerable of all forms of human society.
Franklin Roosevelt's Third Inaugural Address, 1941
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility -- I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it -- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
John Kennedy's Inaugural Address, 1961
It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government. It is time for us to realize that we're too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We're not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope.
Ronald Reagan's First Inaugural Address, 1981
Our democracy must be not only the envy of the world but the engine of our own renewal. There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.