THE TWO POLICE OFFICERS STOOD AWKWARDLY IN our living room. They shifted uncomfortably, as if worried that the mud on their boots might soil the light carpet. What was really bothering them, though, was the news they had to deliver. Frank and I looked at them and knew they had something terrible to say. Hope is a curiously strong thing and so we hoped that what they had to tell us wasn’t what we feared.
They asked us to sit down. Frank collapsed in a chair. I sat on the carpet next to him, my arms wrapped around his knees. The police officers said our daughter was dead, three thousand miles away. We hadn’t heard from her in a couple of weeks. Frank had been in touch with the volunteer paramedics he had worked with in New Jersey, and they asked the police to check on her. She was thirty-four years old. At that moment, we lost both the woman she was and the woman she could have been. All our hope for her and her life died. Frank and I leaned into each other and sobbed, for Lori, for our family, for ourselves. A heart truly can feel as though it is breaking apart into a thousand shattered pieces.
The news wasn’t completely unexpected. Lori had been battling addictions for years. She had been in and out of rehab three times. As anyone who has loved someone with an addiction knows, you can force someone into rehab, but you can’t make her well. Only the addict can do that. Lori couldn’t—or wouldn’t—take that first step of admitting she was powerless over her addiction. And ultimately her body just gave out.
I had known her since she was six years old. I fell in love with her and her big sister, Tracy, almost before I fell in love with their father, my husband, Frank. They were little angels, both to be with and to behold. Tracy was a brunette, and looked like her father. Lori had long blond hair and bright, sparkling eyes. We came into each other’s lives just when we needed each other the most. Lori was a bouncy, happy, and loving child. I was a manager at AT&T, eager for a family. In Frank and Tracy and Lori, I found my family.
All young people represent potential, but Lori had more than most. She was smart and hardworking. Whatever she did, whether it was tending bar or marketing pharmaceuticals, she was the best. And more important, Lori was a kind, compassionate soul. On Frank’s birthday one year, while Lori was in college, he was busy in court giving a deposition until late at night. When he got home after midnight, Lori was waiting for him. She and a girlfriend had decorated the house for his birthday. She had a tremendous amount to give—brains, talent, but most of all, love.
We worried that Lori drank too much in college, but we didn’t think she had an addiction. Those were good years—or so they seemed at the time. I had taken Lori around to visit different campuses, and she had settled on Fairleigh Dickinson, near our home in New Jersey. She lived with us while she went to school. She did well academically and thrived socially. After graduation she toyed with the idea of going on to graduate school but got an offer for a job in sales at a pharmaceutical company. It was a good job, but at first she didn’t want to take it—she didn’t think she would succeed. She ended up being great at it.
What we didn’t know until much later was that behind the scenes in those seemingly happy, high-functioning years, Lori began abusing prescription drugs. Not long after graduation she got her own apartment, met a man, and eventually got married. Her marriage would take her to Richmond, Virginia, for a time. There her drug use got worse. Like so many high-achieving young women, Lori also struggled with bulimia for years. Despite her repeated stays in rehab, the combination of bulimia, alcoholism, and drug abuse took its toll. She was divorced and living in New Jersey when she died.
Virtually every minute of every day after those two police officers stood in our living room, Frank and I wondered what signs we had missed, what we could have done differently to help Lori overcome her demons. It is the torture of second-guessing that every parent who has lost a child to addiction goes through. What breaks my heart the most, though, is the look that grew in Lori’s eyes as her addictions overcame her. There is an old saying, “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” As Lori grew progressively sicker, the potential-filled girl I knew disappeared from behind her eyes. The light, the sparkle she once had, left her. What remained was a dull, flat void. It was the look of hopelessness. And that look is what haunts me most.
Only faith, family, and friends got me through those first terrible days after Lori’s death. Without my complete conviction that a loving God had been with Lori, and was with our family as we buried her, I am not sure how I would have coped. Each time, when grief, guilt, and regret threatened to overcome me, I would do as I have always done since my childhood. I whispered the Lord’s Prayer in my mind. Now, I added the Twenty-third Psalm to my daily prayers: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”
Frank seemed destroyed and so I was not surprised when, soon after Lori’s funeral, he came to me and told me he had lost his faith. I prayed nightly that he would be given a sign and his faith restored. It was months later, just days before Father’s Day 2010, when it happened. He had been in the garage changing the oil in his car. A pile of boxes, which had been stored for years in the corner, caught his eye. For no particular reason he decided to open one of them. Lying on top were four Father’s Day cards from Lori. In one of those cards was a long letter she had written to him many years ago, telling him what a fine father he was and how much she loved him. He read “I love you” in her childish handwriting. He approached me with tears and relief in his eyes and those cards in his hand. He knew, once again, that Jesus loved him and that Lori had found peace. But in those days of spiritual isolation, Frank, too, had that flat, hopeless look in his eyes. I’ve come to know that when people don’t have hope (and faith, among other things, gives us hope), the look is always the same.
Later, when I ran for the U.S. Senate in California, I saw this look in the eyes of more people than I should have. I found myself in a town named Mendota, in California’s Central Valley, once part of the most productive farmland in the world, now known as the Appalachia of the West. I met three men who used to work the fields in Mendota. Now they were out of work along with almost 40 percent of their fellow residents. It wasn’t just that they had no jobs. As I looked around town I saw the fields of almond trees the men used to tend now had become desiccated wastelands. Trees lay uprooted in dead, shriveled heaps. And flowing through the middle of all this parched destruction was a rushing aqueduct. Men and women in suits, thousands of miles away, had decided that this water couldn’t be used to give life to the fields. Men and women in suits had decided these men couldn’t work—the farmworkers’ potential was less important than Washington’s ideological agenda. The men I met in Mendota also had that flat, lifeless look in their eyes. The look of hopelessness. The look of potential unfulfilled.
Whenever someone introduces me at a speech or an event, they read off the lines of my biography and I am always struck by how neat and tidy—even effortless—it sounds. As if life were a series of happy, easy successes. Life isn’t that, of course. I know that I am blessed in many ways, but I’ve had setbacks; I’ve known tragedy and struggle. Losing Lori is first among them. And her death came less than two weeks after I had completed a grueling treatment for breast cancer. Experiencing the worst pain that a parent can endure tested my faith. It humbled me with the realization that I could not protect her, or save her, or fix her pain and suffering. Lori’s death and my battle with cancer taught me that there is so much we cannot control. Yet I came to see lessons and blessings in these passages. I know now that life is not measured in time. Life is measured in love and positive contributions and moments of grace.
Lori’s potential was never fulfilled but death is not the only thing that crushes potential. Too many people lose hope for themselves. Too many lack the opportunity to use their God-given gifts. Like Lori, every person has far more potential than they realize. Every person has the capacity to live a life of meaning, dignity, and purpose.
What I also know is that Americans are failing to achieve their potential today. One in six Americans lives in poverty. More Americans are on food stamps than at any time in our history. Record numbers of Americans remain unemployed. Underemployment is a growing problem. Labor force participation rates are at historic lows. Reversing over 200 years of belief in the American Dream, most Americans now believe their children’s futures will be diminished.
Some survey this bleak landscape and see the signposts on the road of the inevitable decline of America. Some see a nation of “takers.” Many see victims in need of care by benevolent big government.
Me? I think of Lori, and I see an ocean of untapped potential.
The Power of Human Potential
IT WAS A STRANGER AT A ROTARY CLUB MEETING IN the “live free or die” state of New Hampshire who would almost perfectly distill my thoughts about America today.
I was about to give a speech to a room full of people of all political persuasions. As I ate lunch prior to the speech, a gentleman at my table told me he was a Democrat. “I don’t think we’re going to agree,” he said. I thought about that for a moment, thanked him for his candor, and asked him to hear me out. Then I began my speech. Americans agree on a lot of things, but we seem to spend all of our political discourse arguing with great vitriol about our disagreements. “I want to talk to you today about what we all agree on,” I said.
It is worthwhile to consider who we are as Americans, I continued. And I told my story—a story only possible in America. When I was a young girl, my mother—who was also my Sunday school teacher one year—gave our class a small plaque. It read: “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God.”
Those words stayed with me. I graduated from college with a degree in medieval history and philosophy. Both my degree and the recession of the time made me unemployable, so I enrolled in law school. My father was thrilled, but I hated it. I quit after a single semester. I needed to earn a living, so I answered the want ads and took the first job I was offered. I went to work full time doing what I had done part time to help put myself through college: typing and answering the phones. I worked as a secretary at a little, nine-person firm in Palo Alto.
“I have traveled all over the world. I have lived in many places in the world,” I told that New Hampshire Rotary Club. “And I know that only in America is it possible for a young woman to start out as a secretary and become the CEO of the largest technology company in the world.”
America is the greatest nation on earth because that story isn’t just my story—it is the story of every dreamer, every striver, every law school dropout and medieval history major who ever realized her potential in America. We are a nation founded on a visionary and, at the time, radical idea. That visionary idea is that every human life has potential, and everyone has the right to fulfill his or her potential. That is what the Founders meant when they wrote “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Human potential is the one truly limitless resource we have. There are all kinds of reasons why people fail to fulfill their potential. Perhaps they lack opportunity or support. Perhaps they lack tools or training or education. Perhaps they are in desperate and destitute circumstances in which no one will give them the dignity or the respect they deserve. Perhaps in some cases they might lack courage. But everyone has potential. This I know. Our Founders knew it too. They had the radical insight that the right to fulfill your potential—to use your God-given gifts—is a right that comes from God and cannot be taken away by government.
I could see in the faces in that room in New Hampshire that people were hearing something unexpected. A lot of us have heard the Founders evoked in speeches, of course, and we’ve certainly heard America hailed as the greatest country in the history of humanity. But something about marrying the promise of America with the gift of human potential seemed to strike a chord. I said what I fervently believe to be true: we are creatures of infinite potential blessed to live in a nation and at a time when very little is out of our reach. Our challenge is to unlock the potential of every American.
When I finished speaking, I took questions. A man in the back of the room stood up and simply said, “Amen.” My luncheon companion approached me after the Q&A. “He stole my line,” he said, referring to the pithy commenter. “The problem is, we don’t think of ourselves as a nation of limitless possibility and potential anymore.”
The comment stuck with me. I have traveled for almost a decade speaking to all kinds of people about all kinds of subjects. There is a sense of disquiet in our nation. It isn’t partisan; it transcends politics. People fear we’re losing something as a country. When the man at the New Hampshire Rotary Club said we are no longer a people who believe in limitless possibilities, I knew what it is we are losing. We are losing the sense that each of us has the right and the capacity to live life fully and on our own terms. And with that hope, the belief that has always defined the American Dream is being lost: that it doesn’t matter what you look like or what your last name is. It is your gifts, your grit, and your potential that define your future. Today when we look to the future, instead of unlimited potential for all, we increasingly see shrunken, stilted lives defined by limitations, not possibilities.
I thought of the out-of-work men in Mendota. Politicians in a faraway capital had taken away their ability to live lives of dignity and purpose. I thought about the woman I met in South Carolina who dreamed of opening her own hair salon. But when she learned she had to claw her way through more than a year’s worth of applying for licenses and regulations, her future was no longer limitless. She never opened her hair salon. And I thought of all the parents I’ve known. Every parent raising a child is struggling to unlock that child’s potential. A good education is the indispensable support for them. But whether it’s through the greed of a union boss or the cowardice of politicians, too many parents aren’t getting that support, and too many children aren’t realizing their potential. Their lives will be defined by a struggle just to make ends meet, not by a quest to achieve their dreams.
I thought of a statement by the president of the teachers union in Chicago the year the union struck against Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The issue was teacher accountability in the classroom. The president of the union said this: “We cannot be held accountable for the performance of children in our classrooms, because too many of them come from poor and broken families.” What was she saying? In essence, that if you are poor or come from disadvantaged circumstances, you lack the potential to learn. Such a statement is an outrage and should be an affront to every American.
I know the power of human potential—I’ve felt it in my own life, and I’ve seen it countless times in others. It reveals itself in a challenge, in the unexpected, in the obstacle in your path that seems insurmountable.
I’ve come to know that every problem we face, every opportunity we have, can be solved by tapping the human potential possessed by every person. I’ve seen women in Africa use $150 loans to transform their lives and their families’ lives. That’s the power of human potential. If it can work in the poorest nations in the world, it can work in the richest nation on earth.
• • •
What unlocks human potential? Someone taking a chance on you. Someone giving you a helping hand. Free markets. An education. A job. And freedom.
Between President Obama telling business owners “you didn’t build that” and Hillary Clinton assuring us that businesses don’t create jobs, the American people could be forgiven for thinking that government unlocks human potential. The truth is quite the opposite. But President Obama and Secretary Clinton are right in this respect: no one succeeds on their own. Everyone at some point needs someone to encourage the potential that lies within. And every one of us, at one point or another, has needed a helping hand.
Government plays a role only insofar as it makes good on the Founders’ commitment to every American’s right to realize their God-given gifts. If you look at history, you see that human flourishing exploded beginning about the time two things first appeared: the new American republic and free market capitalism. If you plot the history of human prosperity going back over a thousand years, what you see is a flat line hovering just above zero until the late eighteenth century; then the line turns upward, and it hasn’t turned back. Over the past forty years, as countries like China and India have adopted more pro-market policies, the number of people living in the most desperate poverty—existing on less than a dollar a day—has decreased by 80 percent.
Free markets unleash human potential. Free markets give men and women the opportunity to be entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship exists when people have the opportunity to imagine something new, to take a risk, and to build it. The African women I’ve worked with who change their lives with $150 loans are entrepreneurs. In this country most entrepreneurs aren’t found in Fortune 500 companies but in small businesses. It’s the dry cleaners, the nail shops, the coffee shops, and the taquerias that are created by entrepreneurs, and it’s these small businesses that create two thirds of our new jobs and employ half of all Americans. Small business entrepreneurs have created the greatest economic engine in the history of the world: the American economy.
Training and education also unlock human potential. When people have the tools and the confidence, they can dream bigger and utilize more of their gifts. Americans aren’t poor because they lack potential. They are poor because they lack the tools and the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Education is an economic issue, and it is a life-defining issue. Students trapped in failing schools are much more likely to depend on public assistance as adults; they are much more likely to fail to achieve their potential.
A job unlocks human potential. When young people ask me what it takes to get ahead, I tell them to get a job, any job, because there is dignity in all work. When someone has a job, they not only have a sense of purpose, they learn the habits and skills necessary to get a better job. When politicians fail to emphasize jobs and work, they aren’t being compassionate. They are wasting human potential.
Finally, freedom unlocks human potential: the freedom to find your own way and your own gifts; the freedom to make your own mistakes; the freedom to dream your own dreams.