|When I think of freedom, an equal and just society is a |
big part of America’s promise. Photo taken by author at
Boise Veteran's Day Parade, November 4, 2017
On the first Saturday morning in November, I woke up early to attend the annual Boise Veteran’s Day parade. My friend and mentor, Vietnam War veteran Ken Rodgers, was one of four grand marshals. His award-winning documentary film Bravo: Common Men, Uncommon Valor, tells the rough story of the siege of Khe Sanh from the perspective of the American survivors. Ken was one of them, a bona fide American hero.
Veteran’s Day is an annual opportunity for me to reflect on the legacy of military service my father, my grandfather, and so many other brave men and women left to our country. Like Ken, my father fought in Vietnam; I wrote about what it means to grow up as the daughter of a United States Marine here.
Growing up as the daughter of a United States Marine means I cry pretty much any time I see the Stars and Stripes. It means I always stand (and always cry) for the national anthem.
And it means I unequivocally and passionately support the free speech rights of those who don’t stand for the anthem because they are protesting unjust treatment. (Prediction: History will remember Colin Kaepernick as an American hero and President Donald Trump as an American traitor).
The next day, on Sunday morning, I woke up early and drove across town to the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Reverend Sara LaWall’s sermon focused on the urgent need to create “thick” communities where people are encouraged to be their best selves. The sermon was based on a popular David Brooks essay, “How to Leave a Mark on People.” I am reading Brooks’s 2015 book The Road to Character now, as an antidote to the daily assault of unprincipled characters who dominate our screens and our Twitter feeds, the Predator in Chief first among them.
While I was at church in Boise, in a tiny Texas town outside of San Antonio, a congregation was massacred at the close of their Sunday services. Children were among the victims. The usual “thoughts and prayers” tweets from politicians ensued, but people on my social media feeds seem to have given up on reasonable discussions about guns—instead, we shrug and say, “This is just the price we pay to live free (and die free) in America today.”
Maybe Newtown took it out of us. Or Santa Barbara. Or Roseburg. Or Orlando, Or Charleston. Or Tennessee. Or Las Vegas (was that nightmare just three weeks ago?).
After church, my husband and I trudged cheerfully through the November rain to deliver campaign literature for Boise’s first Latina candidate for city council. Lisa Sanchez is the embodiment of the American Dream, and she wants to share that promise with everyone in our community. Raised by a single mother who worked multiple jobs to support their family, Sanchez was the first in her family to graduate from college. She is committed to living wages, ending homelessness, and “bringing everyone to the table.”
When I think of freedom, an equal and just society is a big part of America’s promise. This is exactly what our brave veterans fought to protect and preserve—an America that rewards everyone who is willing (and able) to work hard, and an America that understands the need for empathy, compassion, and community for those who are in need.
I don’t see that America reflected in my news feed. Instead, I see fear, hatred, and corruption—and I don’t think these all too common stories are #fakenews. As a student of the Classics, I see a republic in crisis. Our democracy needs all of our boots on the ground—now—if we are going to prevail against the forces that threaten to destroy us. We have to get educated, and we have to vote.
But we also have to return our individual focus to building Brooks’s thick communities. One of my favorite parts of church is when we turn and greet our neighbors. I also love the power of holding hands with each other and affirming our faith. These powerful rituals can extend to our communities.
When people inevitably annoy us, what if we could think, “peace be with you” instead of shouting “f%$k you?” On social media, when someone posts something we disagree with, what if we could look for common ground first?
I’ve made a point of engaging with people who hold views that are different from mine because a) I don’t know everything; and b) even when we disagree about some things, I am often surprised by how much we actually agree on. I have certainly found this to be true in mental health advocacy. Often, when advocates move beyond the false dichotomy of either/or to the more inclusive community of both/and, we find unexpected moments of insight and connection. Every single person in America—Republican, Democrat, or Independent—should be actively looking for ways to connect with people who disagree with us, "for Heaven and the future's sakes."
By the way, I don’t think that thick communities have to depend on existing church communities. In fact, many of the most moral and principled people I have ever met have eschewed formal religion (It’s true! Atheists are ethicists! See “Good Minus God” for an example).
But we need to find brave new ways to practice both group compassion and civic discourse. This challenge requires us to move out of our comfortable but meaningless echo chambers. For example, people may agree more than they think they do on the need for a social safety net. But when Republicans cast Democrats as nanny state enablers, and Democrats respond by calling Republicans cold-hearted Scrooges, children go hungry and working families suffer. In fact, most of the Democrats and Republicans I know actually want to help those in need and are committed to finding solutions. The difference, as I see it, is that Democrats tend to look to state-run solutions while Republicans prefer private ones.
How do we return to the promise of America? Today, defending freedom is a calling for us all. It starts with educated voters and qualified candidates. It starts with holding our elected leaders accountable, even when it seems like so many of them have checked their consciences at some far distant door (perhaps in Moscow?). It starts with civic discourse, the sincere wish of “peace be with you” to everyone, not just people who affiliate with our political party.
And it starts with positive ideas for real growth and community. I see that kind of energy in the Boise City Council election. I do not see this positive energy in either the Democratic or Republican national parties.
Our country was founded on principles of individual liberty. But only by returning to a common identity by finding agreement on what it means to be American—will we see our way to Katherine Lee Bates’s beautiful future, with “liberty and justice for all.”
Oh, beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.Yeah, that one makes me cry too. Now go vote, y’all!