The Gift We Give Ourselves Outright

Fifty years ago today, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States. I was eight years old.

I have a vague recollection of Eisenhower. He was some old guy who interrupted my cartoons one afternoon to make an announcement about something. It might have been important but I didn’t care. I wanted my cartoons.

All I remember from Kennedy’s inauguration is seeing him give the “Ask not what you can do for your country . . .” line on the evening news. I remember much more about the day he died. Some details of that afternoon, I will never forget.

Kennedy was young, so naturally I related. His coming on the scene as president coincided with my growing curiosity about the world outside of my home, neighborhood, and school, the world outside of cartoons that was often frighteningly real with heavy threats like the Bomb. But it was also shot with  heavy doses of optimism, vitality and purposefulness, which was the vantage point of youth as well as the tenor of Kennedy’s time as president.

There’s not much one can add about Kennedy’s legacy. However, I have always thought that the Peace Corps was his greatest contribution. What an incredible idea it was for the time, for any time: Volunteers who “travel overseas to make real differences in the lives of real people.” The Peace Corps is 50 years old this March 1st. According to their website, “The Peace Corps traces its roots and mission to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.”

Yesterday, we saw the passing of Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps’ first director. Shriver was also responsible for starting VISTA, a domestic version of the Peace Corps; Head Start; the Job Corps; and Legal Services for the Poor. He was, as President Obama said, “one of the brightest lights of the greatest generation.”

The day John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president, he invited Robert Frost to read a poem at the event. It was the first time a poet had been asked to participate in a presidential inauguration. Frost was 87 years old, a famous and honored poet, the recipient of four Pulitzer Prizes.

According to poet.org, “Kennedy asked if Frost planned to recite a new poem. If not, could he recite The Gift Outright, a poem Frost has called ‘a history of the United States in a dozen [actually, sixteen] lines of blank verse.’ Kennedy also requested changing the phrase in the last line to ‘such as she will become’ from ‘such as she would become.’ Frost agreed . . . As inauguration day approached, however, Frost surprised himself by composing a new poem, Dedication . . . which he planned to read as a preface to the poem Kennedy requested. But on the drive to the Capitol on January 20, 1961, Frost worried that the piece, typed on one of the hotel typewriters the night before, was difficult to read even in good light. When he stood to recite the poem, the wind and the bright reflection of sunlight off new fallen snow made the reading the poem impossible. He was able, however, to recite The Gift Outright from memory.”

Here is the poem Frost read that day:

The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Robert Frost

The history recounted in this poem could be an analogy for the history of the human spirit. “Our land of living” could be the mind. And we, withholding our true natures from ourselves. Thinking that our mind controls us, instead of the other way around. Thinking we cannot control anything. We have trouble seeing that we find liberation in surrendering our desires, our preferences, our prejudices. Surrender, the gift we give ourselves. Westward, we walk on the path of awakening. To walk in this kind of surrender does not mean walking in defeat, but in confidence and with hope. Toward the burning horizon, where the Endless Further lies and all dualities, all possessions and all possessed, dissolve in the brightness and heat of the setting sun.

Photo: United Press International

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