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Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” - Henry David Thoreau, Journal - Vol. II, August 1851

In May 2023, our family had the opportunity to visit the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library on Columbia Point in Boston, MA as an adjacent adventure to celebrating my sister’s graduation from Berklee College of Music. It was one of the last out-of-state trips that Dad was able to make before his passing earlier this year; the JFK Library was also one of Dad’s favorite places to visit when traveling up to the New England area.

Over this past weekend, I finished my first reading of Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s signature book, Profiles in Courage (1956) - a biography of the “careers of eight United States Senators whom then-Senator Kennedy felt had shown great courage under enormous pressure from their parties and their constituents” (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, 2024). 

At the time of the publication of Profiles in Courage, JFK was serving in the U.S. Senate, representing Massachusetts after serving as a U.S. House Representative for six years. His book demonstrates a timeless capture of landmark moments of courage and action exhibited by both notable and lesser known figures in American history, diplomacy, and democracy.

If you have not had the opportunity to read this book in its entirety, I highly recommend it. The importance of context cannot be overstated in understanding the literary scope and impact of this work. 

Near the time of the publication of Profiles in Courage, Rosa Parks - a 42-year old Black women commuting home from her work at the Montgomery Fair department store in Montgomery, AL during the time of Jim Crow segregation laws - was thrust into the spotlight of history in a moment of protest of the segregation laws that existed throughout many southern U.S. states; her consequential arrest would act of one of the significant catalysts to the Civil Rights Movement for more than a decade to come. In a world away, unrest and violence in Vietnam reached a tipping point, and the nuclear arms race was well underway in - what would be - the decades-long wake of the conclusion of World War II. 

Amidst these tumultuous times, Profiles in Courage provided insight into the historical references, cultural pretext, and moral resolve of change in America’s young history - forces that the nation would face in the following decades of social and political discourse. 

In 1957, Profiles in Courage was awarded the renown Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The telling of courageous acts by John Quincy Adams, George Norris, Robert A. Taft, and others spotlights the interwoven fabric of historical and chronological impacts on the foundational growth of the United States government. Profiles in Courage was featured on bestseller lists around the world following its publishing and, then again, following the election of President Kennedy in 1960 and his assassination in 1963. Amid growing popularity over the years, translations were published in Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Japanese, among other languages. 

According to the various correspondence between then-Senator Kennedy and his colleagues throughout his Senate and Presidential terms, the book was received with both great praise and passionate rebuttal. Some wished to have their copy autographed; others wished to altogether dispel the ideas and commentary showcased throughout the book.

Controversy around the authorship and accuracy persists since its publication through recent years. Various critics have been outspoken about such matters. Still, the imperfect tenets expressed in the sentiments toward acts of courage, truth, and valor cast a light of hope on the dreams of a better world for all. 

Reading books like Profiles in Courage and reflecting on fond memories gives me a chance to pause and ask questions. Often, I find myself asking questions about the past, present, and the future. We are surrounded by information. The advent of new technologies and capabilities continually reshape the way we interact with each other. Whether societal, economic, political, cultural, public or private, the daunting circumstances of adversity around the world are not mere theory but a daily reality for many. 

Still, I am reminded of the quote from Henry David Thoreau, expressed over 170 years ago: “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

100 years later, President Kennedy expressed his form of optimism during a speech in Pueblo, CO, stating simply: "Rising tide lifts all boats."

After concluding the book, the closing words of Profiles in Courage (p. 266) offer, in my opinion, one of the many ways to see truth, beauty, hope, and love through each of us:

“To be courageous, these stories make clear, requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place and circumstance. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all. Politics merely furnishes one arena which imposes special tests of courage. In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience—the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men — each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage can define that ingredient—they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul”.

The things that matter the most are, often, the hardest to face.

Don’t give up. Try again. See what’s good. 

Keep your heart open. Trust your instinct. 

Find your courage. Move with love. 

Be kind. Be yourself. 

I’ll see you again next week.

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