Jack Kennedy, Octavio Paz . . . and the Pontiac

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Dispatches from the 148 by Fred Ryan


Dispatches from the 148 by Fred Ryan

Reading the Nobel Prize-winning author, Octavio Paz, I came across a startling passage in which he asks his readers – and himself – what his country Mexico wants of him and of them?  The question is startling because we are so accustomed to its reverse: we are continually asking, demanding, what our country is doing for us. That we might have an obligation or two — what?
Letters to the editor, for example, are often complaints that certain services and rights are not in sufficient supply – and we demand to know why!  We are citizens, and thus automatically due the rewards of citizenship in a country as rich as our
own. Daily conversations revolve around complaints – no jobs to wounded health care, rough highways, no internet service, and little consumer choice. Ah, how we insist on being treated as good consumers! Octavio Paz asks the opposite, and notes that in his long diplomatic career similar demands are made of citizens in cultures as varied as India and China. 
There’s a logic here that we have missed. We have been so preoccupied with what we should be getting – not giving – that we have painted ourselves into the corner of the complainers. And, looking at the rest of the world, what do we have to complain about?  What do we have to complain about, really, here in the Pontiac?
Suppose we drop this self-righteousness and ask what does our country and region ask of us? What does our geography, our history, our backgrounds and cultures, what do our grand ambitions demand of us?
Suppose, too, that we narrow our focus to our region, our Pontiac. There are no ends to the complaints and injustices . . . but how real are all these negatives?  How important are they, in the context of a world apparently gone  berserk? 
It occurs to me that if we were to face the demands made upon citizens by the very geography and history lived by those citizens, if we identified and responded, wouldn’t we find many of our original questions answered?  We answer our negative questions, our complaints, when we look at them from a different viewpoint, from the point of view of a universal citizen.
That was Jack Kennedy’s question, too: ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.  For the Pontiac?
Paz and Kennedy’s question is actually an answer. Looking at our contribution, at our commitments and engagement in creating a better community, we overcome this old culture of complaint, of not having enough . . . enough of anything. Paz insists that we had best first answer what we are wiling to contribute ourselves, not demand.
So before launching a complaint – about our weather or our distances, our higher prices, our MRC or provincial government, we must ask first what we offer, what are we willing to contribute, which challenges will we step up to and give our best?  There are plenty of opportunities, from volunteer work to letters to the editor; sports, kids, seniors, the shut-in, those promoting tourism or business creation, environmental cleanups . . . all these people and these opportunities need volunteers and help.
Do we talk up our Pontiac or talk it down? When a call for help goes out, where are we?  That’ll tell us where our Pontiac, and our nation, are headed. And what we really should expect in our corner of this difficult world. Gratitude.