“Ask not, what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country…”
President John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961
The New Citizenship
In everyday life, every single person has the power to change the world. This fact is the very essence of the Peace Corps. The New Citizen manifests this same spirit.
Members of the Peace Corps were everyday people doing everyday tasks: geologists, foresters, computer scientists, agriculturalists and small business advisors. On March 1, 1961, Kennedy’s Executive Order starting the Peace Corps said:
“In establishing our Peace Corps we intend to make…it clear that the responsibility for peace is the responsibility of our entire society…sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life, which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.[i]”
These volunteers answered JFK’s call to serve humanity. In his article, “Has the Peace Corps Made a Difference” author David Searles says:
“Virtually all volunteers (92% in surveys) said that the Peace Corps influence on their lives has been profound. Their concept of the world and their place in it has changed permanently for the better. Whatever…provincialism they began with has been replaced by recognition that we are all in this together.”
Thomas Jefferson once wrote:
“It is the manner and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker that soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.”
My professional experience and recent events reveal that we need better citizens in order to have a peaceful and free society. I address this need in my book, “The Tao of Public Service.” It advances the ideal of “Service as a Way of Life.” But, this is not the ultra-noble ideal of total sacrifice most often seen in a religious context. It is service based on recognition of the practical reality that in living our human lives “we are all in this together.” This understanding demands that we do our best work for each other.
The New Citizen In Each One Of Us
As the Peace Corps visionaries correctly saw, service to humanity is an effort to be achieved day-by-day, step-by-step, by individual initiative, motivated by and determined to work toward the ideal. The new citizen appears whenever true service happens. And it happens everyday.
This new citizen is: the fireman who runs into a burning building to rescue others; the soldier who leaps on a live grenade thrown in attack; the teacher who makes sure each of his or her students has learned the lesson for today; the electrician who makes certain before he leaves that all the lights work; or the leader who makes sure he or she has given the people a vision because “without vision the people perish.” Each of these individuals is just doing their job. But with one difference: each one is doing the best work they can do – with the ideal of that job as their guide.
Giving Our Best To Each Other: Service As A Way of Life
In order to create a better society, the New Citizen seeks perfection. Yet not the all-encompassing perfection of the omnipotent or the omniscient, but the limited perfection of the task at hand. One strives for the immediate and attainable ideal: as a matter of improving character. One has to try and be the best: laborer, teacher, doctor, lawyer, reporter, soldier, judge, professor, president, governor, mayor, CEO, husband, wife, son, daughter, father or mother one can become.
My fellow citizens there can be, in our day and time, a new birth of freedom, founded on character: a character rooted in a common striving that finds its expression in “perfect service” by each and every one of us. And in this way, we can build a better world.
[i] Executive Order Announcing the Peace Corps: March 1, 1961.
This article is based on and contains excerpts from, The Tao of Public Service: A Memoir on Seeking True Purpose, by, Eric Z. Lucas