American Exceptionalism

Most of the questions that divide us right now are not that cut and dry; they demand a complexity of mind that is equal to or greater than the complexity of the subject matter the mind is being asked to address.

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Today we find ourselves in the midst of a significant debate over the idea of American exceptionalism. We are questioning the heretofore largely unexamined and taken-for-granted idea that the U.S. represents a unique and ideal form of government and society. The current crisis is providing an opportunity to shine a light on the sins of our past in ways that we have not had the courage to do so until now.

As an immigrant to this country, I have been thinking hard about the idea of American exceptionalism. I was raised to believe that America represented a unique land of opportunity. That if you worked hard enough, you would be rewarded. In my own limited experience, this turned out to be true. Raised by a single father who himself dropped out of school at age fourteen, I was surrounded by crime and volatility. Not one to let the law get in the way of what his family needed, my father forged a rental application so that I could attend a better public junior high school than the one I would have been forced to attend in my lower income neighborhood. I took advantage of my dad’s hussle (if not blatant disregard for the law) and threw myself into my studies, so determined was I to live a very different life. And I did. In some part, this was undoubtedly due to a country that, despite its very real flaws, rewards hard work and responsibility. At least it did in my case. 

American exceptionalism has never been so directly in the crosshairs of public debate as it is right now. We are finally beginning to truly confront the flaws of a proud nation. It is time we ask some big questions. How do we reconcile the ideals and values for which this country stands with the clear breaches of those very ideals? How do we continue to celebrate what is great about this grand, flawed experiment in democracy and, at the same time, honestly examine the very real and raw wounds that have yet to be healed? How do we see that American exceptionalism can be both what it literally suggests – an extraordinarily unique stand for freedom and justice – and an example of where the exception to these values is, at times, the norm?

I believe we can learn something from another exceptional country. Unlike Americans, who seem to be obsessed with continuous improvement, the Japanese observe several time-honored traditions that celebrate the imperfect. The first of these traditions is kintsugi, an art form originated in the 15th century that uses a lacquer powdered with gold to fill in the cracks of pottery, leaving the restored item more beautiful than its original “unbroken” state. The second is sashiko, which means “little stabs” in Japanese. It is the practice of repairing fabrics by attaching a patch to the inside of the garment using neat rows of tiny stitches, thus leaving the tear visible. Both of these beautiful traditions are manifestations of a cultural belief that, rather than hide or erase past misdeeds, honors and celebrates them. Indeed, by doing so, the Japanese believe we become stronger and more beautiful.

We could do well to apply these traditions to our current times. What if instead of self-blame or avoidance, we filled in the cracks in the foundations of this grand experiment with learning and compassion? What if, instead of ripping the fabric of our society even farther apart, we began to sew it together in a way that didn’t see the stiches and ultimate scar tissue as evidence of wrongdoing but as a source of strength? What if we began to speak to each other with more maturity? While we have gained much needed moral clarity in the last several weeks, I’m afraid we have done so at the expense of moral complexity. To properly heal and emerge stronger will require the capacity to hold paradox – to see America as an extraordinary country AND as a nation that is deeply flawed. Unless we are willing to do that, we will continue to tear apart. What will be left is a country more divided than ever.

So how do we do this? As I wrote a few weeks ago, the words of Mother Teresa can serve as our guide: “If each of us would only clean our own doorstep, the whole world would be clean.” Over the coming months, each of us will be wrestling with difficult questions. Should we remove statues of historical figures who held beliefs that are no longer acceptable? How should we reform policing to address structural racism? Should we fire someone who blogs or tweets something we find objectionable? What about the case for reparations? If the answers to these questions come too easily to you, I humbly suggest that it is quite likely that you haven’t fully appreciated their inherent complexity. Please don’t get me wrong. There is no complexity in racism. It is wrong. There is no complexity in evil and hatred. Yet, most of the questions that divide us right now are not that cut and dry. They demand a complexity of mind that is equal to or greater than the complexity of the subject matter the mind is being asked to address. And complexity of mind does not mean resignation and acceptance. Quite the opposite. Once you have truly considered the nuance of an issue – I mean truly considered it – your resolve to act intensifies. And the quality of your action has an undeniable congruence and authenticity to it.

Let me offer an example in closing. No one will deny that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man of action and principle. His extraordinary power and grace came, in part, from his complexity of thinking – the wisdom to integrate paradox and to appreciate the subtleties of the issues he championed. Consider the following manner with which he spoke about forgiveness. Notice its complexity.

Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship…. We must realize that the evil deed of the enemy neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found in even our worst enemy.

Let this example guide you in the days, weeks, and months ahead. An exceptional nation can only come from a collection of exceptional people.

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