Friday, July 5, 2013

Our Nation's Soul

I have to admit that the fourth of July is not my favorite holiday.  I have never enjoyed loud noises, and now that we live in the heart of a harbor town, the fireworks are all around us.  I must also admit to being ambivalent to the marshal message of our independence day, not the deep and abiding enlightenment principles our country was founded upon – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – but rather the bombs bursting through air, and the march of imperial armies through the oil fields of the Middle East. We never seem to move beyond “God Bless America” to “Bless the Whole World”. 

And yet there is something also magical about our country.  On the fourth of July night, we went down to the harbor to watch the fireworks.  One little boy, of Asian Indian descent, was just beside himself with joy.  I don’t know if he had ever seen fireworks before but he was just bursting.  “Wow, look at that, it’s a smiley face”  “Look at the one, it’s a planet, no, two planets”  “This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”  “America is great! Look at this!”  “America is the biggest country in the world” he yelled.  His mother must have corrected him “Ok, America is richest country in the world”  Corrected again. “Ok America is a fine country.” America is a fine country.

At its best America embodies ideals not often found in any of us, much less an entire nation. Ideals such as fairness, equality, liberty and hope.  As Jacob Needleman, the philosopher wrote in his work Soul of the Nation “America was once the hope of the world. But what kind of hope? More than the hope of material prosperity, although that was part of it; and more than the promise of equality and liberty, although that, too, was an important part of it. And more than safety and security, precious as these things are. The deeper hope of America was its vision of what humanity is and can become — individually and in community. . . . America was once a great idea, and it is such ideas that move the world, that open the possibility of meaning in human life….It is this goal of bringing people together under the guidance of conscience that lies at the heart of the idea of democracy in its uniquely American form."

Our collective soul- and by soul I mean that inner sense of self that has and discerns meaning in the world – is built on the ideal that we can fashion a future for ourselves; that we are, at least in part, the creators of our own destiny.  This is what lies at the heart of our best selves: the ability to imagine and then act on a better, more fair, more liberal future.  It lies also at the heart of our heritage as fierce individualist who decide what they believe is best, courting so dangerously with prudent values that are critical of any attempt to forestall that freedom.  Here I think conservatives miss the point of individual freedom: it’s not the freedom to do whatever we want, own a gun, ride without a helmet or buy monster sized sugary soft drinks.  Rather it’s the freedom to become what you are: a musician, a business owner, gay, straight, a theist or atheist.  It’s our ideal of freedom, liberation and self-determination that drives us collectively, just as it drove our ancestors.

From whence comes this soul, this interior freedom and service to others? Our founders, whether Christian or Unitarian, believed in a moral order based on the natural order of life.  That natural form of life included for our founders the inalienable right to freedom; a freedom of expression and a freedom to act within the confines of civic safety.  Jefferson’s line in the preamble to the declaration of independence, that these rights include life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, reflects the moral order of our nation:  A right to life, the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness (a modification on John Locke’s pursuit of property), and in that order.  And although our economy is severely straining this order, it is still there in principle, if not always in practice.  Needleman makes a salient point about pursuing happiness:  We always assume it’s our happiness, but it could just as well be the happiness of others.

My mother, bless her soul, used to tell me I could be whatever I want to be (except a lawyer, a republican or an Episcopalian), not that I have any issues with those good people, as long as I was happy.  Only later would I realize my happiness was wrapped up in yours. I want all of us to imagine for a moment what this freedom has meant to you.  When were you faced with a life changing moment and had the freedom to change your life’s course?  Was it just your choice or were others involved?

We so often don’t appreciate that our nation’s soul includes the responsibility to give back to our collective good.  We have lost much of that understanding at the national level.  I believe it is still alive and well in the communities but it is harder to find.  Our little dog ran away twice last week.  The first time, she was found by a couple of contractors working on a house down the street.  They had tied her up and, even though she had a collar with our phone number on it, they were intending to take her with them. Finders keepers.  It was only when Frances kept calling and she kept barking that she tracked her down.  Even then these men were reluctant to give her back until Frances paid them a little “reward”.  The next day the dog got out again, this time some neighbors found her and called us.  In the meantime, other neighbors came out and got in their cars and were looking for her.  When we got her back, I tried to offer a reward to our neighbors who had found her but they would have none of it.  “This is what America is about” he told me.  Indeed it is. 

With Grace and Grit,  John