the view from the tortoise-shell glasses

Tortoise-shell glasses framed the deeply wrinkled face of the imposing man before me. It had been several weeks since I started my internship on Capitol Hill, and in my time there,  I had witnessed the imbalance between rhetoric and action that deeply troubled me. 

For all of the embellished, idealistic discourse on providing the North Korean refugees, the Iraqi war interpreters, and the Haitians the aid they sought in urgency, the legislation passed often fell far from the lofty rhetoric. My sense of pessimism grew in tandem with the increasing number of deaths in the Syrian civil war which had spiraled into a humanitarian disaster that spring of 2012. If the American political system couldn’t pull the trigger to help those suffering in Syria, who would?

As I sat before the eighty year-old founder and chairman of one of the world’s largest multinational corporations, I was nervous at the thought of walking away from yet another urgent problem that would remain unsolved. Given his deeply personal roots and business ties in the Gaza region, I was anxious to sit face-to-face with this man and listen to an intensely emotional story demanding assistance that could not be given.

Yet throughout the conversation, he looked directly into my eyes. Even with his awareness that I was an intern, he spoke to me and treated me as a fellow equal in the discussion. He did not treat me as an inanimate and extended arm of the machine of the American government that moved blindly in one body, but as a thinking human actor capable of producing a decision that could affect policy. I was moved by his deference towards me. 

In the short hour of our intimate conversation, I experienced a miniscule degree of the gargantuan weight that the United States bears in the world. Expectations for the American capacity to enact change were carried not only by ordinary students like myself, but also by influential leaders overseas. This multinational executive who was neither born nor raised in this country had looked up to American officials as a source of change. His humility reminded me that to him, while I did not necessarily wield power myself individually, I was connected to an institution that possessed the power to address his concerns. I realized in no way did he expect that the American government owed him an immediate solution to his grievances, nor did he behave in a manner that presumed he rightfully deserved the American government to act on his behalf. Instead, he expressed his gratitude to me for simply sitting with him to hear his concerns. He had reached out because he believed in the American government’s commitment overseas.

Having briefly seen America’s role in the world through the eyes of the executive with the tortoise-shell glasses, I began to see lawmaking in a new light. The executive with the tortoise-shell glasses and my experience in Washington taught me passion in the face of pessimism. Even in his old age, he patiently persisted in meeting with policymakers in the hope that some pathway could be forged towards the resolution in which he fervently believed. In the face of formidable challenges, the mere existence of potential for change can be an incredible power.


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