Monday, July 4, 2016

Scenes From an American Experience

The Declaration of Independence concludes with these words:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
 Two things there stand out to me.

First, in the eyes of our forefathers the declaration needed both their support and a reliance on divinity. They understood the declaration was meaningless if the men and woman represented by it did not fully stand by it, did not act upon its intent, and did not hold the purpose of the declaration above self-interest. Further, our forefathers were sure enough to put it in writing that some power greater than the human power would need to be employed to make sure the declaration's ambitious objectives could be met.
It was bold stuff, to be sure, and not to be undertaken without some careful prayer and consideration.
Interestingly, though, our forefathers did not name the divine entity whose providence would be relied upon for the support of the Declaration, I find it possible that for the Buddhist, Buddha is the understood presence, where for the Christian it is his God, and for the Muslim his, and so on, where in all cases each is bound by his reliance on the providence of his trusted divinity, without ever there being a cause to retreat from the purpose of the Declaration.
I find that so comforting, and true.

The second thing that stands out for me is that the authors of the Declaration felt it was important to articulate what they were willing to put into the pot, so to speak, so as to back up their announcement. They should give up their lives.
They should give up their fortunes. They should give up their honor. What would we do today? For whom would you give your life? A family member? A close friend? How about a neighbor or complete stranger? Would your member of Congress give up his life for your sake? How about his fortune? Would any of the candidates for president do so?

The last of these sacrifices is the one that most impales me, however, the one that most devastates me. We don't talk about honor enough, and especially not in the context of our politics or governance.
We have come to accept not only dishonor but the scorn of it as norm, and we've diluted our expectations so much so that we, ourselves, are not even shadows of the honorable men and women we should be in our support of this Declaration of Independence. We refuse our higher selves, and really most often it seems to me, for laze, not for ignorance, although I'll cede a bit of the latter, myself.

I attended an event a couple of weeks ago at an outdoor venue in Chicago, where a series of Mariachi students and professional performers put on a rousing summer concert for a crowd filled with bright color and food and sweetness. The event opened with the Mexican national anthem and while I'm not Mexican-American myself, I stood with everyone in the crowd and smiled as so many - young, old, in between - belted out with great emotion words that felt familiar even though they weren't to me.
The song ended with whoops and applause, great cheers, and I had the fleeting thought scurry across my mind that these folks ought to be singing an American song; we're in America, and singing the national anthem of Mexico seemed a little provocative for some reason. I couldn't hold the thought in my head for long because just then the arena filled with music again.
Oh-oh say can you see...
I stood there, heart racing, feeling terrible for my ignorance, and listened. A grandmother to my right, feeble and crinkled, held fast to her grandson's hand, singing reedy, proudly. A young woman in front of me wearing every bit of that jumpsuit just right held her hand over her heart, sincere and lost for the music. A group of men, still wearing rainbow beads from an earlier stint at the Pride Parade no doubt, sang full-throated, broad smiles, arm-in-arm.

I thought for those few moments of that song I might just sink into the earth for shame. Here these families who no doubt know that one of the candidates for presidency of this country has called them rapists and criminals, who no doubt know that across the street and wide into the city and across this country there are those who would wall them off, those who would presume them false in their Americanism, those who would turn their noses at their social advances even as they'd thank them and call them 'amigo' for care of their lawns or their hotel rooms, these families who continue to be treated like the nation's whipping boy for all things wrong in the economy, in the security of our nation, these beautiful, bright, warm, amazing Americans were mutually pledging their honor to our country in song.

That music was beautiful, that moment - for me - unforgettable, and that triumph of the truly American spirit will stay with me forever and a day. We are these colors, these scenes, and we can only hope to be this honorable.

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