“What am I building that lasts?” President Obama on legacy

President Obama told a great story about coming to understand the kind of legacy he could leave.

After he gave a speech in Cairo, the government flew him out for a private tour of the pyramids.

Seeing the pyramids in Egypt helped President Obama think about his legacy
Photo from History.com

Here’s how he explained it to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in last month’s Vanity Fair:

“…you’re going to these tombs and looking at the hieroglyphics and imagining the civilization that built these iconic images. And I still remember it—because I hadn’t been president that long at that point—thinking to myself, There were a lot of people during the period when these pyramids were built who thought they were really important. And there was the equivalent of cable news and television and newspapers and Twitter and people anguishing over their relative popularity or position at any given time. And now it’s all just covered in dust and sand…”

It helped him find perspective for his presidency. That what ultimately matters is not what anyone says or thinks in the moment. That’s not the stuff of legacy. Obama said:

“What is relevant is: What am I building that lasts?

And here in the United States, hopefully, what we’re building are not just pyramids, are not icons to one pharaoh. What we’re building is a culture and a way of living together that we can look back on and say, [This] was good, was inclusive, was kind, was innovative, was able to fulfill the dreams of as many people as possible.”

The legacy of “good, inclusive, kind, innovative”

The president had his sit-down with Goodwin before the election, when the values of goodness, inclusivity, kindness, and innovation seemed as solidly rooted in our culture as the pyramids are in the sands of Egypt. At least they seemed that way to many of us. Which is why the tide of vitriol and hatred the election unleashed just gobsmacked us. (By “us” here I mean straight white people, or those of us who unknowingly pass as same.)

But in a world that may pull us to build “icons to one pharaoh,” let’s remember that these icons always fade and fall in time. And the “pharaohs” who seem so important today will become specks in the sands of history.

Ancient Egyptians may have built the pyramids to honor their leaders, but today they stand as testament to the strength of thousands of people—not enslaved people, but privileged workers—who together built something that lasted. (See this fascinating article from Harvard Magazine on the construction of the pyramids.)

The culture of goodness, inclusivity, kindness, etc. that President Obama mentioned can live on in our hearts, and in our individual actions. Looking at each other—as Gloria Steinem said in my post yesterday—rather than at the pharaoh, we can maintain what’s important to us.

Language is at the heart of that. So I’ll keep writing; you keep reading.

“Look at each other”— Gloria Steinem on the present

Everyone in the room—well, not quite everyone, as it turned out—hoped Gloria Steinem would save us. She’d done it before, though she demurred when one of the audience members said that. She chuckled self-deprecatingly and replied, “It’s called a ‘movement’ because there are lots of people in it.”

Okay, so Gloria Steinem hadn’t taken the entire mass of womanhood on her fine-boned shoulders and carried us to the Land of Equality. And when another audience member implied that that’s where we’ve landed (“My sister is 11 years younger than I am and she’s got a great job in finance and doesn’t understand what my generation went through to get her there”), Steinem demurred again.

“Of course we haven’t ‘gotten there.’ Women are still not paid the same as men…” and she reeled off a number of other points that didn’t make it into my notes. But anyone who lived through the Demonization of Hillary Clinton knows women aren’t on a level playing field.

My evening with Gloria

I should pause here and explain what brought me into the same room as Gloria Steinem. I had the privilege of attending a private showing of Annie Leibovitz’s photography exhibit, Women: New Portraits. The show has been traveling the world all year and you can see it in New York until December 11th, at a former women’s prison. Steinem helped Leibovitz line up portrait subjects, and they’ve apparently made this kind of joint presentation frequently.

Gloria Steinem & Annie Leibovitz at an earlier gallery talk
Steinem & Leibovitz at an earlier event. Photograph: George Chinsee for WWD

This particular gathering brought together people from my high school’s community—students, teachers, alumnae, parents; anyone fortunate enough to have clicked quickly enough on the email the school sent at 8:00 the night after the election. They alerted us that it would be coming, but in my post-election haze, I’d forgotten. By pure chance, I decided to check my email before turning off my computer for the day. I looked at the clock—8:01—and experienced my first moment of happiness since the election. [Note: still waiting for the second.]

And so a few days ago I trekked to the westernmost reaches of Chelsea to attend my first large-scale gathering since the world changed in November.

Over and over, I heard women greet each other: “How are you? Well, you know—other than…” But of course it’s hard to separate the rest of our lives from the “other than.” And even being in a roomful of extraordinary women—the ones lining the wall in Leibovitz’s compelling photographs and the ones standing around nibbling lemon squares—even that didn’t lift the feeling of impending doom.

Gloria Steinem says “Don’t look up”

How can we get through this? We all wanted to know.

“Look at each other,” Steinem advised us. “Don’t look up.” Because when we look up—”at the boy in the bully pulpit,” as she put it—we feel alone. But when we look at each other, we can see the power and potential we have. We’ve always had it, and now that we’ve been shocked out of complacency, we need to put it to good use.

“Look at each other; don’t look up.”—Gloria Steinem

Someone asked why so many women voted for Trump. Steinem reminded us that many segments of women voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, including African American women and single women. Only married women voted in the majority for Trump. She suggested this might be a case of internalized oppression.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, here’s Wikipedia’s definition:

Internalized oppression is the manner in sociology and psychology in which an oppressed group comes to use against itself the methods of the oppressor.

For example, sometimes members of marginalized groups hold an oppressive view toward their own populations, or they start to believe in negative stereotypes of themselves.”

So perhaps you’re a post-menopausal woman who’s noticed how tired you get these days. If you generalize your feelings across your entire gender, it’s easy to believe people saying that Clinton lacks the “stamina” to be president. Voilà! Internalized oppression.

A brave question—and an answer to model

But it was the very next question that made me want to tell you all about this event. A woman asked—not timidly or aggressively, just genuinely wondering:

“Is it possible to be a thoughtful woman and vote for Trump?”

Steinem answered the question with integrity, grace, and complete respect for the questioner—behavior we should all emulate.

She acknowledged that some people feel stuck and abandoned. Some feel confused to find themselves living in a country where descendants of white Europeans will soon become a minority. And for those people, Trump may have seemed like the most logical choice.

If the election proved anything [this is Elaine again, not paraphrasing Steinem], it’s that we’re not going to get anywhere by labeling each other—not “racists” (though certainly some are); not “idiots” (though ditto, or at least easily misled).

We need to listen to and try to understand the people on the other side, try to arrive at a shared truth. Even if it’s only a tiny slice of the truth, if we can share it and reconnect at the level of our common humanity, we can broaden the conversation. And then we have hope.

Gloria Steinem suggests that real, lasting change happens when we “look at each other,” connect to each other. And how do we do that? My answer won’t surprise regular readers: we tell our stories, authentically and often.

We share our pain, one person at a time. We remind each other that the masses of people the PEOTUS and his not-so-merry men are trying to make us hate or fear are composed of individuals like you and me. People with the same needs, the same hopes and dreams for respect and security, for peace and understanding.

Demonizing any group only leads to more hatred—whether it’s Trump demonizing immigrants or Clinton’s voters demonizing Trump’s. “Look at each other,” as Steinem said. And tell your stories. One story at a time, one connection at a time, perhaps we truly can change the world.