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Ted Sorensen’s Lessons for Families and Nations

by Seth Eisenberg

Ted Sorensen died today at the age of 82. Although he served at the highest levels of government for just three years, his contributions to generations at home and abroad continue to touch our world.

Best known as President John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorensen will likely be most remembered for 17 words he wrote for the President’s 1961 inaugural address:

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Ted Sorensen

Ted Sorensen and President John F. Kennedy in Oval Office meeting.

His words brought to modern generations the values of ancient spiritual teachings, likely inspired by lessons recorded nearly 2,000 years earlier such as those of the famous Jewish sage, Rabbi Hillel:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

The call to service and pursuit of peace remained central to Sorensen’s life long after leaving the White House. While his eloquent words were most often directed to global matters of war and peace, his deep faith in humanity reflected values at the heart of strong families and marriages across the globe.

First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again. I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal … Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions — on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace; no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process — a way of solving problems.”

Sorensen’s words inspired millions to embrace central concepts of tolerance and acceptance as building blocks for families, communities and nations:

“So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

Ted Sorensen was mortal too. Yet the passions he inspired and the values he illuminated live on.

Seth Eisenberg is President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.

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October 2010
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