“If I had my way …”
Just writing those five words takes me back to my second hometown of Emporia, Kansas. It’s a nine-hour drive by car, but an instant flight in imagination. It just takes one thought to walk the acres of Peter Pan Park, or to race to my (cluttered) desk at The Emporia Gazette, or to taste a Braum’s sundae yet again.
And somewhere in that weave of images lives John Peterson.
Mr. Peterson, who died recently at the age of 96, was a man of many parts: professor and dean at Emporia State University, world traveler and biologist, passionate about conservation and the arts. But the open door through which most of Emporia knew him was his regular column in the Gazette, called “If I Had My Way.”
The title sounds didactic. It wasn’t. This was not a command, but an invitation. John’s column walked through his thoughts and his beloved community like a man on an evening stroll – noticing, commenting, passing the time. It was rarely earth-shaking. It never had to be. It was a chance to visit with a neighbor, to listen and muse and ponder.
His readers often mused right back. More then once, a passerby would greet him with his perennial catchphrase. He remembered one who would call out “If I had my way, the weather would be lots better today,” or another mentioning “If I had my way, you would keep writing those columns.”
“See how my title works for me?” he teased in print once. “Makes me feel good. That is fun.”
Those five words could have been the grumbling of a cranky old man. In John’s hands, they were closer to the late Andy Rooney’s “Did you ever wonder …?” It was a chance to consider what life could be, or at least a small corner of it. Like Hawaii’s “aloha,” it was a greeting, a farewell, and an expression of love.
We could use a little more of these days.
Oh, we’re good at expressing what we want the world to be like. Boy, are we! Whether it’s a sharp-tongued Facebook commenter or a president who finds it “disgusting” that the press can write what it wants, it’s easy to take offense, take a stand, and take on all comers. Right or wrong matters less than “My way or the highway.”
I don’t mean taking a principled stand. There are times to fight for something you believe in strongly, or against a wrong that will not let you remain silent. This isn’t that. This is taking umbrage that someone dare disagree with the rightness that lives in your own head. Other voices become threats to be walled out, lest they undermine you.
After all, what if they were right?
During the latest First Amendment brouhaha, my mind went to another president. Thomas Jefferson was no stranger to the partisan press. He often turned it loose on his enemies from behind the scenes as a rising politician, and often caught holy hell from it in return.
It’s said that when Alexander von Humboldt visited the White House, he found a copy of a newspaper that viciously attacked Jefferson. Shocked, he had to ask: Why are these libels permitted? Why isn’t the newspaper closed or the editor fined or jailed?
Jefferson asked Humboldt to take the newspaper with him. “Should you hear the reality of our liberty, the freedom of the press, questioned,” he said, “show this paper and tell him where you found it.”
Other voices matter. Listening matters. Seeing the visions of others matters, even as we ask them to share our own. Even if we don’t always like what’s shared in return.
Conversations make communities. That’s true in a great nation, or a small town. Remembering that can make life better for everyone.
And you would remember that … if I had my way.