Independence Everyday


This made me laugh.

Today is the Fourth of July, the annual day when America stops to celebrate itself. And we’ve much to celebrate – one of the youngest and yet most influential nations on the planet, we are pretty much the geopolitical equivalent of the Millennials: we came into the game early, believed we belonged, proved ourselves despite some mistakes, and now we’re sitting in the catbird seat wondering, “What next?”

It’s been a rollicking ride, to say the least. I’m no historian, but we’ve undergone quite the transformation. Once a backwater repository for people who didn’t want to be picked on anymore, we’re now the Ritz-Carlton of refugees. For nearly three centuries we’ve been the rewrite of Shangri-La; our national anthem might as well be New York, New York  because if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. And yet we find ourselves at a crossroads. Things have changed. We still believe certain things are true about our country, but we are also increasingly aware that the nation we live in isn’t built entirely on sunshine and big brass ones.

If America were a shiny Jeep Liberty (cause, really – what else would we be?), then we’d have to admit there’s a good bit of dirt on the undercarriage. The same is true of almost any nation.

But we feel it more than most, I think. Our mythology has always been that we were the nation that wasn’t a carbon-copy of the despotic and tyrannical days of yore; we were the nation that gave rise to the voice of the people, the nation that proved that power was not best when concentrated in the hands of a few. We stop and celebrate our independence every July 4th, we sing the song for the people, by the people, of the people, but the reality is that we have drifted far, far away from that narrative.

And it bugs us.

Some folks break out the tea bags and stockpile the ammo, waiting for the day that history repeats itself. Others push for reforms that will never come. Some just embrace it as the manifest destiny of all nations – that at some point the safety and security of all we’ve become is paramount over the rights and liberties that made us what we are. Others adopt that most modern American of attitudes: “Dude, as long as I still get wifi, who cares?”

Two hundred and thirty seven years after we told the British Empire to step off, we’re still trying to figure out what it means to be American.

And maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe the most daring of political experiments should never come to a tidy conclusion, where certain ideas and beliefs become ruts that trap us. Maybe it’s right that we continue wrestling with the soul of our nation in order not to fall into the trap of other former powers who lost their souls and then lost themselves. Maybe our greatest gift to ourselves is the permanence of uncertainty, that we rise and fall on our ability as a nation to never settle on a “right way”.

It would be ironic, wouldn’t it, if our stability as a nation rested on our instability as a culture?

I’m not a fan of everything that’s changed about our country. I look back on previous generations and lament the loss of certain of their characteristics in this day and age. But I’m also quite pleased that we now have a country where you can’t own another person legally, you can’t get away with abuse in private, and you can’t claim superiority to another person simply because you were born into privilege. Yeah, we’ve lost a lot of who we used to be, but you know what? A bunch of it needed to be lost.

That’s what makes us America – we’re constantly examining who we are in order to become who we want to be.

There will always be people who deny this, of course. They’ll insist that what makes us great is what made us great in the past, those values and behaviors that gave rise to power and prestige on the world stage. But if you look at the thread weaving our history together, if you look at the central characteristic of the American story, you see that it’s always been our propensity for change that’s made us great. We are a nation built on thrown off ideals.

Our independence is what defines us, for better or worse. Usually for the better.

So today as Americans, wherever you may be, celebrate the country that gives you the opportunity to reinvent yourself. Celebrate the nation that believes at its core to be human is to change. Light a firework or fifty in honor of our independence, not just from Britain, but from the shackles of history; not just 237 years ago, but everyday.

Happy Fourth of July, America. Hope it’s a good one.

The Myth of Independence

Lady Liberty may stand by herself, but she doesn't stand alone. None of us do.

No, that’s not just a “pee in someone’s Cheerios” blog title, cynically posted to stir up traffic on the most sacred of our secular American holidays. It’s a legitimate thought that I can and will back up in my post.

But – it certainly got your attention didn’t it?

Such is the power of the greatest of the American myths – the myth of independence. We have spent 235 years building this myth into an unquestioned ideal that the entire world not only knows but actively believes. Immigrants still flock to our shores in large part because they believe with all sincerity that in America, a person is free to live as they please. To live life on one’s own terms. To make something of oneself with hard work, grit and a little luck.

It’s a nice myth. Certainly better than what some other nations are putting out there (“Come to Afghanistan, where if you’re lucky, you won’t be killed by a deranged suicide bomber!”). It’s got a fair amount of truth to it, and there’s more than enough anecdotal evidence in the volumes of American history to provide support. Our past is littered with men and women and children who, because of the freedom and independence guaranteed by our nation, raised themselves up from unfortunate circumstances by determination and sheer force of will. These stories are placed before us as glorious reminders of the need for individual ethic and drive, the proof in the American pudding.

My family has many of these stories. My uncle, who opened his own tire and battery shop and has thrived as an independent businessman for over thirty years. My father, who turned an entry-level computer programming job into a 30 year career as an executive at a Fortune 500 bank. My father-in-law, who took his B.S. in chemistry to two different companies and cranked out over 42 U.S. patents.

But let’s not be sexist. I know a young woman who turned her passion for helping women and children in need into an international humanitarian agency that transforms thousands of lives annually. I know another young woman who turned her passion for singing into a career on Broadway and stages across the nation. And I know of other, quieter female heroes who realized that the role of mother was the best way to shape the future of the free world.

Each of these people were individuals who took their freedoms and independence as valuable gifts and made best use of them. Each of these people can be hailed as examples of the myth of independence.

And yet none of them truly are.

For all of their success, these people are not independent. Not a single one of them made their lives better on their own. Regardless of how hard they worked and how much of their own spirit they put into their efforts, each one was utterly dependent upon others to achieve all they did.

Because that’s the nature of humanity. We rely on one another. We’re not really independent creatures, free to do whatever we wish. Everything we do resonates within a larger context, a larger community. Whether its family, or neighbors, or friends, each one of us is who we are because of the people around us.

And this is not a bad thing. Dependence upon others is not a weakness, it’s not a blight on the soul. It’s a hallmark of maturity and wisdom. My son and I visited my grandfather today, and when we arrived my father was sitting, ever faithful by my grandfather’s side while my grandmother shelled beans she had just picked from her garden. There was nothing bombastic about the scene – I’ve probably seen something similar a thousand times before – but given my grandfather’s health, the interconnectedness of the moment made me realize just how much we are indebted to other people. And how much we should cherish that indebtedness.

I hope that my son grows up to be whomever he wishes to be (as long as it’s not a career in reality TV). I hope that my daughter goes on to be an icon of femininity in all of its fullness. Both will be free to be themselves as long as I’m their father. Yet both will owe profound debts to their mother, their grandparents, their cousins, their Sunday school teachers, their pastors, their public school teachers and countless other people for helping to shape and mold and drive them towards whatever they might become. Such is the nature of life, especially this American life.

Heck, even if my children decide at an early age to run away from civilization and live on the backside of some God-forsaken mountain in the New Mexico desert, they will still never escape their dependence upon other people. Because even if you go Tim McVeigh and live in a van down by the river, the freedom you have to be “independent” comes courtesy of some Marine or Sailor 0r Grunt or Airman or Coastie who took up arms to keep you free.

In a way, I suppose today is the ultimate irony: a nation of people stand together and celebrate their collective independence en masse. We’re all in this together. Thank a soldier, thank a cop, or just walk across the room and hug that person sitting on the couch, because it takes all of us to make this nation what it is. And maybe in doing so, we’ll reflect and think about one of the most powerful truths of our great nation:

The myth of independence belies the truth of community.

Or as some of our forebears so wisely put it: E pluribus unum.

God bless America, and God bless you my friend. Thank you for what you’ve contributed to my life.

Dang It Jefferson, We Wanted It To Read “We the Homies…”

Today on, a fascinating bit of history came to light in the form of a hyperspectral imaging discovery on a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. For those who thought hyperspectral imaging had something to do with ADHD ghosts, let me explain: basically you take really old documents and pass them under the visible and non-visible light spectrum. This allows you to see a whole lot more than what your eyes normally detect.

The story is really interesting and I suggest you read it in full. However, it also brought to mind an old document, discovered about 42 years ago, that some historians hailed as paradigm-shifting for the national historical record. The majority of U.S. historians rejected the document out of hand, but there are still a vocal few who maintain its veracity. I’ll let you decide.

Herewith is a transcript version of “The Minutes of the Continental Congress, Assembled Together on this Daye, 4 July, 1776”, discovered by Drs. Gullay and Boll, Atherton University, Department of History. Continue reading “Dang It Jefferson, We Wanted It To Read “We the Homies…””