This was originally posted with The Outlier Collective in July of 2013, when I was invited to write about the USA in a positive light. As TOC has gone offline, I decided to re-publish it here.
How would you fill in this outline? I guarantee it’s more complex than red, white, and blue. Would you color this country obnoxious and ignorant, or optimistic and inventive? All these shades exist inside the American crayon box, but what really colors your perception of America is what aspect of it you choose to focus on. Today, I want to highlight what I was celebrating last week as the 4th of July fireworks exploded.
When I think of my home country, what immediately comes to mind is that it’s a wellspring of possibility. From birth, Americans are raised believing that you simply do whatever it takes to follow your ambitions. Ask any six-year-old: What will she be when she grows up? The answer (in summary): Anything she fucking wants. And with that belief comes a determination that means there’s very little that can’t be accomplished in this country. In addition, the great majority of Americans are relentlessly committed to finding what makes us happy. It’s written into our core national documents, for crying out loud. I believe the phrase “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” represents my nation more perfectly than any other words we have on record. And the place where initiative and idealism converge is the source of what’s best about America. It’s our own special kind of magic.
This energy is magic because it leads to evolution. When people are simultaneously driven and hopeful, and when they have the resources to pursue their passions, good things happen. I’ll be completely honest and tell you something you already know: there are plenty of very average, not especially motivated people in my country. That’s fine. There are also some very bad, fearful, and stupid people in my country, and sometimes they hold positions of power. But when I think of why America is worth celebrating, my mind is on the thousands and thousands of citizens who genuinely want to make the country and the world a better place. Because, after a time, all that “pursuit of happiness” navel-gazing turns outward, and the concept of personal fulfillment transforms into the conviction that everyone in the world should be empowered to achieve their own brand of contentment. People begin founding public health NGOs and working to preserve the environment and promoting international fair trade and – while our government continues to be a problematic beast, erring often and apologizing infrequently – the individuals who truly make up the nation keep pushing for positive change. Just last week, my federal government recognized gay marriage. And yes, that initiative came up from the people at the grassroots. And yes, I am really, really proud of my country.
Of course, my patriotic love is not unconditional. For example, I happen to think there are much prettier flags than ours. (Have you seen Kazakhstan’s?!) And I don’t think America is the best country in the world, because I don’t think we’re in a competition. But I do know that we have a lot to offer and we are trying to do good work. (After all, the internet and global warming were both invented by just one of our citizens!) But seriously: I’m not talking about saving the world. How could we, when there’s so much we don’t understand? But Americans are learning to connect with other people around the globe to mutually support each other and, together, make things a little better for the next generation.
I didn’t always feel this way. I spent years of my life apologizing for my country. When I lived in Mexico, I was on auto-repeat that not every American worshipped George Bush. When I traveled to Dubai, I found myself pleading with a taxi driver to understand that of course not all Americans despised his way of life. Wherever I went, in the midst of appreciating some new and marvelous place, I was accompanied by the specter of being American in a world that is frequently angered and disappointed by America. But now I believe that promoting mutual understanding is a more valuable use of my time than begging forgiveness. In fact, I began to realize I was judging my own country by much harsher standards than I would ever apply elsewhere, and I was losing so much in the process. There is a way for me to represent where I come from honestly and fairly, without sweeping our faults under a rug, but also without ignoring what we have to offer. And what America offers is not our government – it’s our individuals and their collective power. I think our people’s sheer belief in the potential of the human spirit casts an international light.
As American author Jack Kerouac wrote, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who […] burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding […] across the stars.”
And that’s us. We’re nothing if not excessive, but boundless exuberance – when channeled – can be a wonderful thing. Driven by confidence and enthusiasm, our energy spills out like fireworks around the world. Sometimes the light show gets misdirected and, despite our best intentions, we shower sparks onto an unsuspecting neighbor’s roof. Sometimes the sparks catch fire and cause damage, and the results are tragic. But I can promise that, when disaster strikes at American hands, there will be other Americans lining up to form a water bucket brigade to douse those errant flames. These people will recognize where the fault lies and then do whatever it takes to re-establish neighborly love. Hopefully these Americans are enough to make people of other nationalities believe that – despite the unpredictability of fireworks – the world is overall a little brighter because they exist.
So. If you want to discuss specific examples of American uncouthness or political fuck-up-ery, I’m more than happy to oblige with a sober, reasoned conversation. But if you ask me how I really feel about my country, I will tell you this: It’s awesome. Here, I can trust that my freedom of speech is utterly sacred. I can travel from one shore to another and see enough varied geography to fill five separate countries. I can enjoy the cultural contributions of an incredibly diverse population on a daily basis. I can witness the old soul of this relatively young nation reflected in our continued devotion to traditional crafts, music, and storytelling despite the increasing prevalence of modern conveniences.
And, most of all, I can spread the news that – to paraphrase the immortal words of Johnny Depp – we are Americans, not American’ts. We can learn. We can grow. We can succeed more than we fail. We can be ourselves and still be worthy of our place in the world. We can be an imperfect nation and still have a positive impact.