As we slide into the holiday season with the aroma of fresh baked pies and warm, happy families surrounding us, it’s worth reflecting on the world around us and the lives we live.
The United States and each of the 50 states that make up this grand assemblage of territories we choose to call home exists as an experiment. Historically we have been powerful economically, militarily, in terms of industrial might, and by making the most of the creative impulses of an astoundingly diverse population. Perhaps more than any other place on earth, we have invited the dreamer, the ne’er do well, the oddball, and the downtrodden to come live among us.
While the road has been bumpy, deeply rutted, and occasionally washed out due to political storms packing powerful winds and lashing rain, we have persevered. At least we have so far. Whether we will continue to do so is increasingly in doubt.
Recently I have been fortunate enough to speak with elected leadership from both major parties. They fill seats at the local, regional, state, and federal levels of government, and after spending time with them, commiserating with them, and listening to their perspectives concerning the political environment we currently live in, the conclusion I come to is clear, disappointing, and completely avoidable.
As a people, we are on the verge of becoming completely dysfunctional and either incapable or unwilling to govern ourselves.
This is where we are currently. News outlets take sides and openly promote one policy or position over another. Rather than simply report the facts of an issue or the occurrences of the day, they’ve chosen to become participants in the process — to the detriment of their viewers and readers.
Politicians attack one another over party affiliation, rather than discussing issues of substance and methods of achieving mutually beneficial goals.
And perhaps our greatest failing today is our willingness to avoid thoughtful reflection on what the nature of the United States is, because our country is not simply a place. The United States of America has historically offered the promise of individual freedom in a world where even the concept of that dream was under attack.
There is a reason the United States has been a world leader in economic power, industrial production, technological innovation, and personal achievement for all these years. And that reason is not rooted in guarantees, safety nets, welfare programs, or social security payments. It was the promise of opportunity that urged our forefathers and mothers to come, to risk everything in an effort to make a better life for their progeny.
We have lost our way. If we hope to secure our individual freedoms and conduct our lives as we wish, whether that might be at the controls of an airplane cruising above the rolling hills below, at the wheel of a tractor in the fields, or in our own homes conducting our lives as we wish them to be — we will have to adopt a newfound respect for our neighbors, regardless of whether they agree with us or not.
It is with astounding gratification that I stand at the end of a long, ugly line in American history. As an American who has spent the bulk of his life in the south, I have lived what others have only read about. I’ve seen a cross burning in the yard of a terrified family. I have lived in places where segregation was enforced by law and by convention. I’ve eaten in restaurants where the only non-white faces were in the kitchen. And I’ve served as an elected official beside men and women who were on the opposite side of that experience during their younger years.
I grew up in an America where women’s career opportunities were severely limited, and victimization of them due to their gender was both common and largely unspoken. I’ve known gays and lesbians who have walked a more difficult road than I have, for no reason other than their preference in an aspect of life that will never affect me in any way.
We’re past much of that now. Our nation, our opinions, what we think of as “normal,” has changed dramatically over the course of my life. Those changes have been for the better, for the most part. Yet we still find it necessary to find something to fight over in order to justify a hatred for our neighbors who have done nothing more egregious than hold a dissenting opinion.
Allow me to make this observation: Suffering from poverty, disease, starvation, and an early death has been the historical norm for humans on our planet. Even today that is the short, painful future a large percentage of humans face. Yet Americans by and large find themselves sitting at a banquet table of unimaginable bounty, yet we complain vociferously because we perceive the person seated on the opposite side of the table to have a larger portion, while we must suffer the indignity of being given a dirty fork.
As we enter this holiday season I would urge all of us to look at the circumstances of our lives and recognize that even the most humble among us live better than 99% of all humans to have ever walked the face of the earth. Let us truly be thankful this year, for what we have, for what we’re given the opportunity to achieve, and for the gift of freedom that was handed down to us by those who came before and lived a much harder life than we will — unless we choose to burn down the village to make ourselves feel better, of course.
In that case, the end is indeed near — and it is entirely of our own choosing.