I have had an uneasy relationship with America for more than a decade. Before that I was as flag-waving as anyone else, and more than most.
That changed when I began to see a world without borders. I spent some years feeling that we would be a lot better off as a species if we could live together on this round planet without all the artificial lines of nationalism to divide us.
I am also gut-sick over what the ethos of America has become. We have strayed, it seems, from the rugged, creative, dynamic spirit that inspired people from around the world to land on these shores and start something from scratch. Instead, we have slouched our way into believing that being Americans means an entitlement to being the biggest (and I do mean biggest in every way–just look at the average waistline on this continent), most badass consumers on the planet. Somehow we have come to believe that we have a right to scarf down every resource in sight to fuel our lifestyle.
Couple that with a long, honest look back at how we occupied the territory now known as America and it is hard to avoid feeling shame about the atrocities and genocides we committed along the way.
We haven’t stopped committing atrocities in the name of our most holy America, either. We are doing it in different places around the world right now. Some of our transgressions are sins of commission. Others are sins of omission.
We wave the flag, drop bombs and cheer for ourselves. Our constant quest for more resources and more control creates imbalances and power vacuums that cause tremendous misery in real people’s lives around the world. We ignore them.
The most unconscious of us yell some equivalent of, “‘Merica…fuck yeah!” whenever we prove that we are God’s chosen people to reign over the earth. I get sick when people talk about how “…our boys are over there defending our freedom,” when what they are really doing is engaging in corporate warfare. I don’t question the heroism and loyalty of our soldiers, but I can’t handle the blind nationalism that keeps us believing that we are doing something honorable and pride-worthy most of the time.
All of that being said, and as disheartening as it can be, I am convinced there is a lot more to the story.
In my search to find out if there was anything worth saving about America, I learned a lot about human nature and about the magnificent intentions of those who designed the foundation for this country.
First, the fact is that humans have not yet evolved past the need for boundaries and national identities. We just haven’t. We are headed that direction, but it is a horizon we have not yet reached. To pretend otherwise is to argue with reality.
Second, those who drafted the blueprint for America were imperfect from our two-hundred-years-later perspective. They owned slaves, approved slaughters and did otherwise horrible things from our current vantage point. That does not diminish the fact that they helped start the most ambitious experiment in human history. In their times, they were the most progressive thinkers around.
This land of ours is a laboratory. We are all involved in adding chemicals, turning up the heat under test tubes and otherwise messing around to see if a theory called Human Freedom can be viable.
The spirit of America is not a license to live like great alimentary canals with mouths full of teeth, mindlessly chewing up luxuries and gorging ourselves on shiny lifestyles at the expense of the world, then stomping on anyone who protests. That is a direct violation of what our founders meant to create when they signed their names, lives and sacred honor to a document which declares, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
From where I sit, holding an American passport is like carrying orders that read, “I am an American. I have a responsibility to use the mind-boggling freedom and riches in ways that will honor the creator potential in all humans. I have been given opportunities to live my life in peace and safety, with all the resources I need to craft a magnificent life. It is my job to prove myself worthy of this and to treat the rest of the world with humility, respect and honor as they also seek to gain the freedoms which come so easily to me. I have a sacred duty to live in joy and spread the possibility of this wealth for the benefit of everyone everywhere.”
The American dream is beautiful when it wakes us from our sleep and reminds us that we are living, breathing participants in the greatest social experiment ever.
How will the world and our own lives appear if we pursue happiness with responsibility and the full understanding of exactly how amazing all of this is?
NOTE: I originally wrote and published this essay on February 11, 2017. I am releasing it again in the middle of 2020—the most disruptive, confusing year that most of us have ever experienced.
As an update, I feel as strongly about these things now as I did then. I am heartened by the events of this year, as hard as they are for all of us to comprehend. I feel that we are testing the limits of our strength to hold on to the true dream of America—the spark of freedom and sense of evolving destiny as a human species that transcends nationalistic interests and old, old tribal hostilities.
I also feel that we are called to be gentle with ourselves in this time. I don’t mean self-indulgent or unwilling to look at the dark, ugly threads that are woven through our history. These threads are part of our national fabric, just as the pure, beautiful ones are. What I’m talking about is a need to acknowledge the astonishing progress we’ve made here in this place that is unique in all of human history.
It is our tendency to view who we are and were through the lenses of who we aspire to become. This means that we often discredit our accomplishments of the past and feel despair that things are evolving because we are focused on the terrible through eyes that want to hope we can do better, but are looking for evidence that it’s not true.
I’d like to point out that, in the course of a few hundred years, we have:
- Outlawed slavery (a practice that goes backward in time to roughly 11,000 years ago. SEE THIS ARTICLE)
- Established (more) equal rights for women
- Developed laws protecting gay marriage and rights
- To name a few…
We have a long, long way to go. We have come a long, long way, though—and we’ve done it in a very short period of time, historically speaking. My point is that we are growing and changing.
Sometimes it’s hard to see in the middle of a big, terrible mess such as the one in which we find ourselves at the moment. It’s noisy and bloody and painful and it stinks. And it’s frightening. Also, it’s evidence that we are breaking free from many old habits that have created human suffering forever backward in time.
I share this with you not to suggest that we pat ourselves on the back and try to get past our current pain as quickly as possible. No. We need to stay with it and in it for as long as it takes. And we need to remember that we are all in this together. We made this mess together and we are the only ones who can clean it up.
If you’re reading this right now and feel a “yes” spring up inside, I love you. If you’re willing to keep waking up for as long as it takes to see the dawn of something new, I love you. If you have the courage to keep facing your inner fears, biases, and hostilities—to keep healing and growing, I love you. Thank you for being here with me at this most extraordinary time on our little planet.