Thursday, July 4, 2013
Proud . . . or Humbled?
On the evening of September 14, 2001, I stood on a random street corner in Arlington, Virginia with a crowd that grew larger and larger as the night progressed. Only a few blocks away from the still smoldering Pentagon, we hugged and sang songs and waved to honking cars passing by. Among the lyrics that we offered with our collective voice in that moment were those of "Proud to Be an American" by Lee Greenwood. I think it's a great song because I DO love this land and I WILL defend her. But, I sometimes get stuck on the word "proud."
I watched some of The Story of Us on the History Channel today, which now means I've seen at least part of the documentary at least ten times. It's one of my favorites. As the stories of the Boston Tea Party and Lexington and Concord and the Declaration of Independence were told, I felt a huge knot in my stomach. It still blows me away that a group of untrained farmers and silversmiths and fur traders gathered in the forests first of New England and then throughout the colonies to change the course of world history by toppling the most powerful military on the planet.
I read the Declaration of Independence every Fourth of July. These men pledged their lives and their fortunes to the notion that all of us are created equal and deserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What a radical notion! I get chills every time I read it and imagine what it must have been like to gather in the streets of Boston or Philadelphia or New York City with fellow colonists and hear those words read aloud for the first time.
But, when I think about those who stood up to an empire or the beautifully crafted (although certainly flawed in light of who really had freedom in our country in the 18th century) founding documents that provide the foundation for the world's most successful and enduring republic, I'm not sure that pride is the word to which I am most drawn. I didn't have anything to do with those amazing events in history, after all. Even if I had been alive in 1776, my whole being a woman thing would have been frowned upon in Independence Hall. And pride is first defined as "a feeling of pleasure from one's own achievements."
Instead, above all else, when I take time to realize how fortunate I am to be an American, my overwhelming feeling is that of being humbled.
Somewhere, in another country, there is a woman who was born on the same day as me who never learned to read those books she admired in her family's living room because if she had, she may have been shot.
Somewhere, in another country, there is a woman who was born on the same day as me who has no fresh water for her children and already has seen three sons die at the hands of malnutrition.
Somewhere, in another country, there is a woman who was born on the same day as me who is told where she has to work or how many kids she is allowed to have or where she must live or which websites she is allowed to visit or how she is to worship.
But I was born here, in the United States of America. I joined this population of earth dwellers in a hospital in Washington, D.C., at 38 degrees latitude, 77 degrees longitude. I am no different from those women I described except for geography of origin, and for that one reason my opportunities and my experiences are completely transformed. I think about these women often and wonder, why me and not them? That's humbling.
So, I think I'm going to stick with humbled, and also grateful, when I think about being an American. I am humbled when I watch men and women in uniform going off to defend the principles for which our flag stands. I am grateful for a natural landscape that offers oceans and mountains and deserts and rich soil and gorgeous forests. I am humbled when I hear of a fellow American who has overcome great challenges to achieve amazing success through hard work and perseverance in a nation that still rewards such efforts. And, I am grateful that I can walk into my church every weekend without fear or persecution and also that I've had Jewish and Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist and atheist friends, roommates, and co-workers who can choose to do something completely different.
So, happy 237th birthday, America! I know how fortunate I am to live here. Our country isn't perfect, and we certainly argue loudly and regularly over what would make it better, but it is pretty spectacular. May I always continue to be humbled and grateful for the unique gifts and lessons you offer.