America’s Birthday Is More Like Our Anniversary

This week’s Courier Herald column:

I celebrated another trip around the sun a couple of weeks ago.  Given a worldwide pandemic, nationwide economic shutdown, and my own personal journey with Covid, I’ll channel the Grateful Dead in summing up my 52nd year with “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

I tend to use my birthday as a time for an annual review.  It’s time for some introspection. 

An honest self-assessment is due.  There’s usually a written exercise in what is going well, what needs attention, and a direct challenge for improvement.

America celebrated its birthday last week.  The countdown is beginning to our Semiquincentennial.  Our country will be turning the tender young age of 250 in just five years.

An honest self-assessment of the state of our nation would likely not start out terribly rosy.  The phrase “divided nation” is now used so often in media and politics that is has become a full cliché.  Our elected leaders in Washington can rarely agree on legislation that they themselves deem critical.  As many tough decisions as possible are now punted to unelected bureaucrats or to the judicial branch.

Our legislators, whether we want to realize it (and take appropriate responsibility for it) or not, reflect us.  We are the ones who insist they never bend and never compromise.  We as a people now feel entitled to everything we want, nothing we don’t want, and to stop “them” from getting in the way.

“They” are our fellow countrymen, and they are routinely viewed as the enemy.  To quote the great philosopher Pogo, “We have seen the enemy and he is us”.

Taken in this light it would be easy to conclude that America’s best days are behind us.  The American experiment had a good run.

An alternative view was expressed this week by actor, philosopher, Lincoln spokesperson and potential politician Matthew McConaughey.  He suggests that our country is just “going through puberty” right now. 

Having lived through that long ago, I would have no desire to revisit those horribly awkward years.  And yet, looking at the country’s behavior – at us constantly acting out while ignoring both the responsibility and consequences of our dramatic episodes – it’s hard to argue against his point.

The truth is, however, that America was not so much “born” as it was joined together by mutual consent.  Thus, America didn’t so much just have a birthday as it did an anniversary. 

This week, Former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary.   This is a truly amazing accomplishment and a testament to their personal commitment to health as well as to their perseverance and dedication to each other.

To put this into context, the Carters have been married roughly one third of the time America has been a country.  They’ve experienced the usual challenges of marriage such as raising a family and making a living. 

They’ve had disagreements, such as the decision to leave the Navy and return to Plains.  There were no doubt compromises.  Others were put before self, in order to achieve accomplishments of which only a few can dream.

During the ups and down of marriage, they had four years where they wore the weight of the entire world on their shoulders.  Such is America’s role in the world.  Such is the burden our leaders bear.

More than 40 years of the Carter’s marriage has been spent post-presidency.  They have remained dedicated to solving the burdens of the world. 

Thousands of homes have been built with Habitat for Humanity.  The Guinea worm has been eradicated to ease the suffering in many impoverished nations.  The Carter Center remains an active instrument for peace and democracy throughout the world.

These accomplishments have at their core a strong union and inseparable bond.  United, they have not only stood, but they have accomplished.

An honest assessment of our nation should begin with the understanding that it is indeed a union of disparate people with diverse backgrounds that came together 245 years ago and must come together every day now and in perpetuity.  There would be no better union to emulate than the Carter’s as we resolve to move forward with deliberation and purpose.

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