On the 4th of July, What America Means to Me
July 4, 2017
I’ve been thinking a lot this year about what it means for me to be an American and it’s something that I still struggle to clearly define for myself. Is it that I was born here? No, I’m not any less American than people whose families have been here longer than mine and I’m not any more American than people whose families recently moved here. Is it a set of shared values? No, there’s not much that Americans as a whole can agree on, and the big picture ideals like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness certainly aren’t exclusive to the American experience. For me, my Americanism a very ethereal identity; an ever-changing, fluid standard that could never be extended to defining anyone else’s Americanism.
But this fluidity for me is grounded by a very real connection I have to the land, the physical space of America. There’s a specific smell of dew on the summer grass in North Carolina where I grew up and a specific way the air feels crisp in the early morning before the humidity sets in. There’s a specific way the Pacific Ocean feels impossibly cold against my ankles, and a specific shade of orange in the skies at sunset over L.A. These are all very deeply ingrained parts of me, and each time I step outside and sit still long enough to tune in to the world around me, I feel more awed by and more connected to this land. America excels in the sublime. Visit our national parks. Stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon or in Yosemite Valley and feel small. Listen to the rain on leaves in the Great Smoky Mountains or stop and feel the heat radiate up from the rocks in Joshua Tree and know that you are indeed a part of this country and its people. Whatever else America means to you, you can breathe its air into your lungs and let its soil run through your fingers and it becomes a part of you; and you of it.
A little perspective goes a long way and it is relatively easy to find. Get on a plane. Drive up the coast. Get back to nature. Talk to people. Each trip, no matter how close or far from home, is a reference point for better understanding our place in the world; how our individual and collective choices affect people we may never meet. I’m proud of my little blue passport and I understand how fortunate I am to have it, not just for the specific benefit to travel internationally it allows me, but for all of the ancillary benefits it suggests. Being able to travel means that my basic needs have been met; that I have moved beyond finding shelter, food, clothing, and affection in my hierarchy of needs. I have easy access to clean water and don’t have to walk miles every day to get it. I have easy access to education and information and am free to form and voice unpopular opinions. My geographic mobility, both in and out of this country, is not very restricted. That I am able to make travel a priority says a lot about the stability of where I live, and that is something I no longer take for granted.
For all of the reasons I am proud and thankful to be an American, I have to recognize that there are many people for whom those same reasons don’t apply. The American Dream has been good to me, but luck and privilege have truly been the primary determinants of how well that Dream has worked. I happen to be a white male born in the US to a supportive, stable middle-class family. I don’t get passed over for promotions or earn less money than my peers or get profiled and harassed by law enforcement. I happen to be in good health and don’t have to spend a lot on medical care. I happen to love someone who is deemed acceptable by society and we are not persecuted for our relationship. The freedoms I enjoy, unfortunately, do not extend to everyone.
We honor this country not only by recognizing how much we have to be thankful for, but also by acknowledging its shortcomings. We honor those who have served and continue to serve by making sure their sacrifices are not taken for granted and by working to leave this place better than we found it. We honor ourselves as a society when we admit how much work there is still left to do. Happy 4th, everyone! Be good to each other and enjoy the fireworks tonight.