A lot of people start to scorn birthdays as they get older. Not me. I love my birthday. I don’t see a birthday as an acknowledgement that I’m another year older (although, of course, I am). Instead, I see my birthday as a momentary pause in the regular programming of life- a sort of public service announcement about the wonder that is me. It is the one day of the year when I can feel justified making it all about me. It is the one day a year when it feels right to sit back and reflect on who I am and what I have built and what I would like to accomplish in whatever time I have left in the world. My birthday is an opportunity to celebrate me.
I bring the same notion to Independence Day. The Fourth of July is a time to cherish our nation. It is a time to think about how the country got where we are today. It is time to allow our hearts to dream big for the future.
We live in a huge, beautiful, awe-inspiring country. We ourselves elect the leaders who govern us. We enjoy freedoms that much of the world would find almost anarchistic. Despite the messiness that often ensues, our nation continues to work and to impress 240 years after its inception. I am humbled when I think about the people in the past who helped frame what we now enjoy. I wish I could say I have even a fraction of the vision, wisdom, and courage of the great leaders and beacons that came before us.
I celebrate George Washington leading a battle to liberty when the only evidence he had to suggest he would succeed was what his own heart told him. I am ashamed that I have dismissed beautiful ideas because they seem impractical.
I celebrate Abraham Lincoln demolishing obstacles to garner enough support to pass the 13th amendment. He constitutionally abolished slavery while also maintaining a fragile balance in Congress to keep the nation from fracturing still further. I realize that persistence and process do work if I just invest a little patience.
I celebrate Dorothea Dix standing up to a masculine monolith that insisted decent women had no place in medicine. She created a professional nursing corps during the Civil War. These nurses faced hardship and derision, but still provided invaluable service to their patients. I know I must be brave enough to offer my passion and talents to help others.
I celebrate Henry Ford creating an assembly line that ultimately made it possible for all classes of people to have tools and goods that otherwise would have been available only to the rich. By questioning the way things had always been done and looking for just one way to improve his operation, he introduced a concept that would ultimately make it possible for millions to achieve their way out of poverty. I realize that contributing just one idea to change one seemingly self-contained aspect of life sometimes results in changing the world.
I celebrate Teddy Roosevelt championing the creation of national parks. Even in a time when most Americans never saw the country outside their hometowns, he knew that the day would come when we would need to protect our geographic wonders. From his example, I understand that we must conserve and preserve the natural and historic beauty of the United States.
I celebrate that later Roosevelt- Franklin- who navigated the nation through the dangerous waters of the Great Depression and World War II. He helped create programs that would give many worthwhile Americans a hand up when they thought their lives were worthless. He provided practical assistance and hope for the heart of the nation. He did all this from a wheelchair. He proved that the power of patriotism and personal will can overcome the frailties of the physical.
I celebrate Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus after a hard day’s work. She taught the whole world a lesson about value and equality in one simple, routine moment. She reminds me of the power of dignity and integrity.
I celebrate Jaime Escalante coming to the United States as an immigrant and overcoming obstacles. He taught a generation of young adults that learning is the most effective tool we have to improve ourselves and the world in which we live. He taught students from low income, disenfranchised families. They came to him believing that they could not achieve. He proved to them that they were better than they thought they were. His message was so powerful, it burst out beyond his immediate sphere of influence. Because of his success, popular media shared his story. His vision spoke to many people, who also learned that, through education, they could create something wonderful of their lives. I pray that all young people have someone in their lives to convince them of their possibilities.
As a child and as a young adult, I think I kind of thought everyone was sort of like me. I knew that people were different on the outside because I could see that. However, I thought that everyone pretty much thought and believed and felt as I did once you got beneath the skin. I left some room for some standard deviation level differences, but I thought most people would react to life in pretty much the same way I did. As I matured, I realized this was not the case. Everyone’s backgrounds and unique sets of circumstances will color how they see the world and what they can contribute to the common good.
I grew up in a time when society at large was just beginning to realize that patriotism didn’t necessarily mean supporting the status quo. For a long time, a lot of people thought that loving the country meant not only appreciating what it was but guarding it against change. We feared that change would destroy. In my childhood, innovative thinkers were beginning to remind us that the nation’s motto is not “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
In each generation, there have been challenges and experimentation and triumphs. Changes have sometimes been difficult to manage and may have brought some negative aftermath. However, our country is not so fragile that change can destroy it. Going forward, some proposed changes will bring about wonderful results. Other ideas might address some needs, but bring about another set of unintended negative consequences. It is important to listen to all voices respectfully and curiously. This is how we discern whether or not a new approach is going to help our nation thrive or not. We will not all agree on whether some aspect of our national consciousness should change or how it should change. Wisdom has many voices. The chorus and harmony of those voices will eventually decide what our national song will sound like in every generation.
When I was a child, my parents taught me tolerance. I learned that I should judge people, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” One of the positives of my generation was that we did begin with “tolerance”- but we opened the door for more. As I experienced more of life, and reflected on what I experienced, I realized that the differences that we prided ourselves on “tolerating” are actually cause for celebration. We can all bring the different talents and perspectives we possess to the common table of America. We can use them to enhance our American experience and continuously use them to build an even better United States.
I think great Americans are sort of like saints. Some of them are well-known and celebrated, their names printed in boldface type in the canon of history. Others are anonymous, known only to those who love them. We can and should count anyone who has shaped our country in a positive, evolutionary way on our list of great Americans. I hope that list includes all of us.
So who do you think of as American “saints?” There are so many. Who are your favorites and why? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Celebrate today!