Monday night was was the annual celebration of the day our country declared our independence… I spent the evening with friends, riding bikes, and being awed by the sound and sight of fireworks going off less a few hundred feet away. As the reverberations pounded my chest, I thought about how impressive it is that we have harnessed the power of chemical reactions to create something so beautiful. The visual spectacle was accompanied by iconic American music like the Top Gun soundtrack and Born in the USA, both of which brought a smile to my face along with a reminder that the essence of the 4th of July celebration has changed dramatically since 1776.
When the show concluded, we walked our bikes through the crowds planning our next stop. As we walked, a guy in front of me finished his tall-boy (beer), crushed it up and threw it into the bushes. Unable to contain myself, I blurted “Seriously?” to the back of his head. He cocked his head to the side and arrogantly grunted “Yeah”. To which I replied, “Proud to be an American.” His parting words of justification were, “Yeah, I do what I want.”
This basically sums ups my overall disappointment with the average American. Fly the stars and stripes, attend a baseball game, watch the fireworks, get drunk, and then carelessly live your life to your own comfort and convenience. This guy was just one more of the millions that seems to confuse independence for entitlement, freedom for free reign, and pride for ego. This situation deserves a poster in which fireworks are going off in the background and this red-white-and-blue patriot is littering next to a pristine marsh.. across the top it would simply say “FAIL”.
It seems the Land of the Free has given a little too much leeway in all the wrong places. Our consumer driven economy has skewed the values of our country so much that we have sold our principles and quality of life for a few more pennies. People have put their own privileges above the rights of others so that they can live cheap, easy, and convenient lifestyles full of instant gratification and self indulgence. I could go off on this tangent for weeks but I think you all get the point. Back to my iconic 4th of July…
After this less than inspiring run-in, we all headed back to the house and decided to play a board game. We settled on playing “Life”, since none of us had played since childhood. After a thorough briefing, we got rolling. You start with a mini-van, you must choose between going straight into a career or accruing $40k of debt for a degree, and then you take a spin. Along the way, you stop to get your career and salary, get married, have kids, win and lose money, buy a house, choose to purchase insurance, play the stock market, and make decisions that mirror those being made everyday. Of course the person with the most money and assets wins in the end. Within minutes of beginning we all realized that this game is a lot more entertaining when we were younger and these types of decisions were too far in the future to be taken seriously. We softened the blow of this reality with a few drinks, competing stories of financial woes, some upbeat music, and the occasionally self-depreciating joke.
Playing as a adult comes with a much different perspective and when your mini-van driving game piece ends up accruing debt, getting stuck with a low-paying job, and being left behind your peers on the board- it starts to feel a little too much like the real thing.
This brings me back again to the idea of what it means to be an American. There are so many movies, television shows, songs, commercials and games similar to “Life” that further reinforce the idea that there is a standard operating procedure for becoming a successful adult in the United States. It gives the impression that there is a “right way”, that you can win or lose, and that the winner is the one with all of the money. Yet this expectation and set of rules has resulted in the highest rate of divorce, bankruptcy, and suicide since the 1950s and more people are on mood and behavioral modifying medications than ever. It is this “right way” that pushed me to feel inadequate, left me doubting my decisions, and created a constant pressure for me to achieve traditional success that left me with stomach ulcers and debt.
I recently watched the documentary God Grew Tired of Us and it left me with the most bizarre mix of hope and disappointment on this same subject. It tells the story of the thousands of boys ages 3- 13 that fled their country of Sudan to avoid being killed or enslaved and spent almost a decade as refugees. Of these refugees, 3800 were selected to be re-settled in the United States. You watch them leave a refugee village that is small and lacking in supplies but full of brotherhood, friendship, and laughter with hope that the US holds the key to a better life. The young men must overcome the immense cultural and physical differences of coming to a new country and prepare to repay the debt that they have accrued for their travels. The story unfolds as they struggled to learn our customs, speak better English, and adjust to the American way of life.
Over the span of four years there is a transformation of these young men as they find jobs, send money home, try and stay connect with each other, and struggle to overcome their alienation of being immigrants. I cringed when I watched as they were harassed by police officers for traveling in groups, ignored by other pedestrians when they needed help, and mocked for their accents; this lack of compassion combined with the pressure resulted in the complete mental breakdown of one of the young men that had to be institutionalized. In many of the interviews they talk about they missed the sense of community, openness, and friendship that is such an integral part of their country. They felt a sense of disillusionment at how hard they had to work to gain so little, leaving them with no time for their family and a never ending sense of backsliding.
These young men had seen such unimaginable things, survived walking hundreds of miles carrying one another, lived through attacks from wild animals, and entered man-hood as orphaned refugees only to end up in America scraping for minimum wage and losing themselves in the isolation of our society. Towards the end it shows many of the young men gathering at a conference to re-connect with each other and in many cases and address the issues that many of them were facing and there was a glimmer of hope in their unfailing ambition.
I was inspired by the hearts and the strength of these young men that had endured so much pain and suffering and continued to work so hard in hopes of changing their lives. I then think about how many people grow-up in the United States surrounded by type of opportunities these boys crossed a desert and an ocean for and take it for granted. How many people their age are sleepwalking through life ungrateful, seeking instant gratification, never questioning anything, always trying to buy something bigger and better, and seeking out to the quickest and easiest way to die fat and happy.
Perhaps it is time we all stop and consider what it is to be an American and how we need to start re-defining that. To me being an American should mean that I respect the freedom so many have died for by using it to strengthen my community and my country. When I am successful, I should delight in the opportunity to share my time, experience, and bounty with those that are less fortunate. I will celebrate my independence by defending my right to make my own decisions about my life and my body. To ensure that the leaders of my country are strong I will use my voice to guide their decisions and vote for those that I believe in. I believe that every body of government, business, and corporation should operate in a way they can be proud of and hold policies of transparency with no fear of third party auditing. Although my funds are limited, I will use my money wisely and support the local economy that supports me by buying from local businesses, restaurants, and farmers. It is time that we demand that our country is shaped democratically by the voice of the people and not the corporations and groups with deep pockets. I am proud to be an American but I am not yet proud of many of my fellow Americans, something I hope will change with time.
I think it is time we start holding each other to a higher standard, to start exploring and supporting new and different ways of living, to learn from cultures much older than ours, to meet our neighbors, and to become a country of individuals that believes in something greater than ourselves.