July 4, 2017. Independence Day. My 73rd. For years it was simply simple. Sweet, innocent parodies of parades. Bigger siblings on bikes pulling littler ones in wagons. Faded-red Radio Flyers handed down generations. Garlands of makeshift bunting and miniature American flags retrieved annually from the attic. Grown-ups lining the parade route, chatting and cheering the kids, family dogs on leashes, decorated too.
Sometimes the local fire engine brought up the rear with a muted siren. Later came the cookout and then ice cream ad libitum. This was a special day after all. Finally a brief speech to layer patriotic blessings on a day of felt privilege. America the beautiful, the exceptional, the dream turned reality. America the fruition of intellectual struggle revisited last summer in the musical, Hamilton. Chris and I made that our 50th-anniversary gift to each other.
“Red white and blue. We all love you.” We all did once, so it seemed.
And then? And now? Then came the sixties. The “summer of love” in San Francisco. To celebrate our 51st last month, we visited its 50th anniversary exhibition at the de Young Museum. Faded images of a generation (ours) in rebellion against a grotesque and needless war. In rooms plastered with psychedelic posters evoking long-ago yearnings for a radically more inclusive human community, I was lamenting how far we have regressed from those heady days. Faith in social progress? Belief in the American experiment? Action to save the environment? But then, as if to read my mind, a curator had provided this summary in a prominent wall label:
The 1960s are often discussed in terms of revolution. Throughout the decade and around the world, a generation of young people took direct action, affecting a series of cultural and political transformations, while advocating such concerns as social justice, inclusiveness, and an awareness of the natural world. Fifty years later, government policies resulting from such interventions render a way of life in the West that would have been unimaginable to all but the surest of sixties visionaries.”
My question was how to square this anodyne reading of history with the contemporary brutalities to which newer generations, groups like Black Lives Matter and individuals like Bryan Stevenson, continue to bear witness. How to make any sense of the unflagging public support for a Republican administration driven by what Nitsuh Abebe characterized as “a gut-level inclination toward the hyperbolic exercise of power … [that] makes winning purely about imposing your will on reality, rather than, say, reaching an outcome that’s actually desirable or defensible.” How did we let this happen? Why are we allowing it to continue? What choice do we have? Who is the “we” after all?
And now? Sunday’s July 2 New York Times said it all in a remarkable extra section in the print edition only, an eight-page fold-out spread on the U.S. Constitution, “the country’s operating manual” wrote the editors in offering the reminder that this is:
“a time when the headlines … seem to embed solemn and uneasy questions: What are the country’s basic rules? Where does our founding charter draw the lines? What should the citizenry be compelled by patriotism to oppose and what to allow?”
The tw0-page fold-out, an “introduction,” opened to the four-page reproduction of the full constitution, annotated in red and blue ink by “lawmakers, scholars, authors.” Gary Wills’s brilliant introduction, “Child of the Enlightenment,” harked back to the debates of the founding fathers. These were “daring experimenters,” he reminds us, who lacked from “the very bodies that had authorized their meeting,” a mandate to dream up the “entirely new plan of government” on which they labored in deep secret in Philadelphia over that most famous of American summers.
The “original intent” of the framers was not only far more complex than today’s “strict constructionists” would have us believe, but also was fluid, acknowledging the moment as one of deep changes in the fledgling nation and the wider world. Madison, in particular, “said that the key component of all government is ‘virtue,’” Wills writes, then concludes with this warning to us now:
If the people really want a mean and selfish government, one that speaks only for a faction, then the voting process, no matter how refined, will let them have it. We have witnessed this abroad when we encouraged democracy in other countries, only to see democratic tools used against democratic values. Perhaps we will one day witness it at home.”
Years ago during a simpler and happier July, Chris bought a flag-themed shirt, wore it, washed it, and, when it shrank, passed it on to me. The next year he bought another and we took to wearing them together as playful July 4th uniforms.
Today? I don’t know if I will wear mine. I do know that, in the words of poet, William Stafford, “the darkness around us is deep.” Another poet, James Seay, supplied the title to this post in a poem about eating shrimp published in the New Yorker last week. “Oh, my country, my country./ Now we eat the dark vein/ of ruin that runs/ lengthwise.”
There is another thing I know or am learning, this from teachings of the Dalai Lama, whom I was fortunate to work with over the past five years. We humans have layers of conditioning, old habitual patterns we develop and reinforce. We do this by turning to distractions we hope will push away an innate uneasiness with the reality of our situation, its ever-changing nature, its instability.
We search for solid ground by looking away from the things that trouble or frighten us. This becomes a vicious circle, a pattern that reinforces the very habits that cause us suffering, most notably the habit of distancing ourselves from direct experience, from the realities of the present, its joys and its sorrows. If, instead, we can learn to be mindful, so the Buddhists teach us, we can learn to move with curiosity and kindness toward sources of pain, to to penetrate the heart of reality and find there compassion, for ourselves and for others together with deeper connection to our all-too-human joys and sorrows.
Oh. Our country, our country. We have caught ourselves up in a web of distractions that is taking our breath away, closing our minds and hearts, stoking our fears and outrage, separating us from each other, denying us access to what we know to be good and true. Can we create new forms of interacting? Listening and being heard. Can we learn to recognize and short-circuit our own destructive emotions, so that we may modulate our fear of what we will encounter in others? Can we move away from dualistic thinking and learn to live with paradox, bringing curiosity and humor to our own and others’ struggles? Can we carve out new spaces for connection and creativity?
This is our nation’s unfinished work for the summer of 2017 and for the months and years ahead. May we take it up with the respect for scholarship, precedent, and complexity that animated the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who, with all their limitations, dared to challenge precedent and set a new course. It is for us now to find new ways to speak in a multitude of voices, a new “we the people” capable of forming a more perfect union.
Maybe I will wear that shirt after all.
Originally published at medium.com