I doubt that jazz musician Wynton Marsalis knows our state motto. But recently he provided great insight into how we can make that motto real and meaningful for us as South Carolinians today.
Dum Spiro Spero — While I Breathe I Hope.
I have always loved that motto because it is probably the single most optimistic and hopeful statement a person or a state could possibly make. It says that as long as I as a person or we as a people can draw a breath, we are hopeful. No matter how bad or bleak things may be, if we are still breathing, we are hopeful and optimistic about the future.
What an amazing spirit and tenacious determination is embodied in those words.
First adopted in 1776, at a time of great revolutionary hope and fear, I sometimes wonder whether this motto is still real for us as a state today, or whether it is simply the dry, empty utterance of a time gone by.
A few weeks ago, I was on one of those solitary late-night drives where the greatest challenge is to find some way to stay awake on an endless stretch of boring interstate between where I’d been and where I needed to be. As the radio randomly searched through the fading in and out of distant stations, it stopped on the soft, melodic voice of Marsalis talking about his music, his life, and what he has learned over all these many years.
Then he said something that jarred be out of my boredom-induced stupor.
“Hope and struggle are two sides of the same coin. If you don’t struggle, then there is no reason for hope – and if you are not hopeful, there is no reason to struggle.”
How simple and how true.
Those who are resigned to the status quo, who have no ambition, or have no fight left in them – they have no reason or need for hope. The power and encouragement of hope doesn’t matter; they have given up. But if you have hope, then you will struggle, you will work to improve things, you will fight to make life better – and the power and encouragement of hope is real and valuable. The hope sustains the struggle.
It seems that too many of us here in South Carolina have recently lost both the hope and the struggle. We are merely trying to get by, with no big ambitions or big dreams. In fact, it sometimes seems that the only folks in our public life who are “dreaming big” are Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney.
Football is great, but it is not a foundation for building a competitive state in the global economy of the 21st Century.
For too long now, our political leaders haven’t even tried to inspire us. Most of them – in both parties – are well-meaning people who want us to “do better,” but they have become caught up in a system of broken government and corrupt special-interest politics that effectively kills our state’s dreams and stifles our ambitions.
So what now?
I go back to Wynton Marsalis – we need both the struggle and the hope. We all need to find ways to struggle against the broken and corrupt politics that’s killing our dreams. Each in our own way, we need to fight – fight to stay informed, to get involved in some positive solutions to real problems – any problems – from better schools, to more affordable healthcare, to real political reform. Big struggles and little struggles, they are all important.
And most of all, we need to not lose hope. It can be better. Our history shows us that things can change, that big ideas can take root, and that regular people can do great things.
While I breathe I hope.
We need to make those words more than a motto. We need to make them a call to civic duty — and a way of civic life.