What an interesting time it is to be an American! With what seems to be a record number and diverse array of candidates running for president, several recent, history-making (and controversial) Supreme Court decisions, and a brand new relationship with Cuba, it seems particularly fitting that colorful fireworks are the hallmark–and highlight–of our country’s annual Fourth of July celebrations.
As the granddaughter of a Russian immigrant–a man who arrived in this country in 1910 at the age of 10, lived to celebrate his 100th birthday, was fiercely patriotic, and who, throughout his life, fought vigorously for the rights of the vulnerable and under-served–I often wonder what he would think about the state of affairs in our country today, 15 years after his death.
What would he say about last week’s Supreme Court rulings? About the murders that took place at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston–and the series of fires that have burned down several black churches throughout the south in the days since? About the level of vitriol and decline in civility that seems to be so prevalent throughout our society? About the advent of social media and its growing influence on public opinion and even world events?
Would he be surprised? Delighted? Disappointed? Indignant? Or would he simply take these developments in stride, believing as Heraclitus did that, “The only thing that is constant is change,” and understanding as Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr did, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”?
One of my favorite movies is “The American President.” Written by Aaron Sorkin, its script includes several very eloquent and extremely impassioned soliloquies about America, our politics, and patriotism. One of those, delivered by the film’s embattled President Andrew Shepherd, reads as follows:
“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’ You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that . . .”
This speech has resonated with me since the first time I heard it, because it speaks to the values we, as Americans, hold so dear. In particular, I find the idea that “America is advanced citizenship,” to be especially intriguing.
These days, when people talk about citizenship, they are typically referring to someone’s citizenship status as defined by their passport, driver’s license, or government-issued ID card. But Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary also defines citizenship as, “the qualities that a person is expected to have as a responsible member of a community.”
That, to me, is what real citizenship is all about. The roles we play, the actions we take, the contributions we make individually and collectively that help make our communities better places to live, work, and play–and enable us to grow as human beings in the process.
With all the finger-pointing, shouting, blaming, and shaming going on throughout society right now–in politics, traditional media, and social media–I fear that the true definition of citizenship has been forgotten. That people have been bullied into silence and inaction because they’re decided that one person can’t really make a difference anyway, so why bother trying. That our problems are so numerous, so varied, and so great, the thought of addressing them in any way is simply paralyzing. That the conversation has become so acrimonious and divisive, there’s no way for anyone to find common ground.
This makes me sad.
Because the one thing I know for sure after five years of running Boomers Leading Change in Health is that one person, one voice, one act, one conversation CAN make a difference–a real, lasting, meaningful, life-changing, and sometimes even life-saving difference. Just ask any of the more than 50,000 people our volunteers, AmeriCorps Encore Members, and certified health coverage guides have helped over the past five years. Ask the professional and lay leadership at the more than two dozen host sites we’ve partnered with since July 2010. Ask our funders and other stakeholders who hold us accountable every day.
Better yet, ask any one of the more than 250 adults 50 and older who’ve raised their hands and stepped up to serve our community over the past five years.
This weekend, as you wave your American flag, marvel at the fireworks, and celebrate the 239th anniversary of our country’s birth, I urge you to take a moment to reflect on what your citizenship in our great nation really means–and to ask yourself whether you are doing everything you can to fulfill the responsibilities that come with, as Aaron Sorkin so beautifully put it, “advanced citizenship.”
We need you. Our community needs you. Our world needs you. Now. And always.