I have an old poster, battered and worn, that's been taped up on my wall for as long as I can remember. It features a JFK quote juxtaposed against an image of the great man smoking: "Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly."
Something about that quote has always inspired me. Indeed, as I sit watching the news today, hearing constantly how Congress will not do this or that, I can't help but think that America is declining because we have become frightened — petrified — of failure.
This is striking. We were once a country that wasn't scared to do the big things, weren't we? The first settlers came here despite the fact that it would be hard; the abolitionists who died to transform the words "all men are created equal" from a fiction tointo a reality did so despite tenacious opposition; the soldiers who stormed Normandy's beaches on D-Day prevailed, again, in spite of difficulty. Most recently, we chose to go to the moon, as JFK said, not because it was easy but because it was hard.
Why do we remember these achievements? Why do they stand out in our national consciousness? Easy: Because the risk of failure lay within their very essence, omnipresent, all-threatening, and yet despite that we still prevailed.
Because, in short, they were hard.
So yes, we have problems. That may be the one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on these days. Our debt is out of control, our national morale is down, income inequality is as bad as ever, and Congress is about as useful as a screen-door on a submarine. But you know what? Our fear about tackling these issues lest we fail is the biggest and most pernicious obstacle. If we are to achieve, then we must first dare to fail.
Congressmen must dare to fail by forming bipartisan consensus despite the risk of lost elections; news media must dare to fail by educating the public on what we need to know (e.g., the spiraling debt, national security issues, and NSA spying) rather than what we want to know (Miley Cyrus' last date); educators must dare to fail by challenging the way our kids approach school; and so on.
JFK may be dead, but his spirit lives on, and — by God — we need it now more than ever.
This column was originally published on Huffington Post.