Friday, July 3, 2009

A Parent America

Like most Americans, I become exceptionally patriotic around July 4th and introspective about the nation’s history, my own history, and the future of both. I vividly recall backyard barbecues, some of which were warm and delightful and some soggy but equally memorable. I remember our nation's bicentennial celebration and setting firecrackers off, much to my mother's dismay. I remember how firework shows terrified me as a child but now bring inspiration, awe and pride. I recall ad hoc barbecues in Boston and spending all day at the Esplanade waiting for the Boston Pops to perform. Nearly twenty years ago my wife and I celebrated our first Independence Day together as a married couple on the rooftop with friends. The night was full of music and synchronized colors. Soon the finale and all its illumination transformed the evening into daylight. The crackle and boom sounded like a war and we smiled with exhilaration and expectant joy.

Sadly, the nation has been through several real wars since then and undoubtedly, there will be more. Our nephews, cousins and friends have seen combat or have been stationed in some of the most dangerous places on earth. It occurred to me, and thankfully, he does not know it, since my son's birth in 2003, the nation has not been at peace. The resources of the country are so grand, the sacrifices of others so great that he has been insulated from the harsh realities of war.

I was recently watching a report from an embedded journalist in Afghanistan who was caught up in a firefight. The action was loud and captured the attention and imagination of my curious boy. His questions on who was fighting and why and if they were dying and why began to become increasingly difficult to answer. I found myself explaining terrorism and how brave men and women protect us every day. That yes, some die and no, they do not get the same attention that Michael Jackson does and that’s one reason why we should always thank those who volunteer to protect us.

How do we explain America to our children? That people wanting to do harm to us is not a new thing. That although we are peace loving, we are also a violent and brash culture. That for all our problems and dysfunction like our insatiable consumption of drugs, our fascination with any salacious story, our self-inflicted pain caused by antiquated healthcare, education, and infrastructure systems, we are also envied. Why? Because the American gene pool is made up of leaders, innovators, artists, and visionaries. People from every nation in the world have risked their lives to come here, to worship, to love, to create something better.

At 233 years, we are a relatively young nation culturally, but our form of government is one of the more enduring compared to the 203 other nations on the planet. Yet we are envied for the same reason we are hated. We value freedom and because we have it, we often take it for granted. We seem to treasure it most when it is at risk; otherwise, because we are fairly secure in it, something else often captures our attention. Consider the television coverage of the conflict in Iran. The voices there hint at a fragile democracy, much like our forefathers did, though this movement is buoyed predominantly by educated women, young and old. It’s a story that should transfix us. Freedom is on the march. Instead, it is put to the side in favor of a more accessible political sex scandal or Michael Jackson's premature death. We believe celebrity mystique is more appropriate summer fare than revolution. Revolutions seem to fit better in the autumn after we've recharged our batteries but before the holidays. What hubris. What audacity. What truth. Detractors think it's blissful ignorance. That to be truly great, we need to organize our problems and solve them in a linear way. America doesn't work that way. This nation has the talent, enthusiasm, and skill to solve almost any problem. That's why it's so maddening when we don't address critical problems more timely. We could make things easier for ourselves, but as Americans, the easy way is seldom the most fun and we like a challenge.

What our nation has is boldness and maturity. Many nations are similar to the kids in the backseat of a car on a road trip. Sometimes we sing or play fun games together, but invariably they ask, "Are we there yet?" They are vocal. They complain. They want us to pull over just as we are gathering speed. The one thing they never do is drive - nor do they want to. America is the parent. Our population’s attitude follows a continuum between the reluctant parent and the kind who are smothering. Like a parent, we will often question our abilities, our decisions, and ourselves. Others will challenge our authority, rebel, ask for money and sometimes seek our hugs. It is not our role to whine about it. It is our role to lead it. The world expects that of us.

Enjoy your weekend and the parades, fireworks, and celebrations. Thank those who came before you quietly and those who protect you loudly and then dedicate yourself to finding your own special way of leading and making the nation and the world better in some way, grand or small.