How have we come to where we seem to be as a country … as Americans? Why do the things that appear to divide us feel as though they’re multiplying daily? Do we really have anything of substance in common any longer? What can be done to stop seeing our fellow countrymen as people to be feared, loathed, hated — as mortal enemies?
How do we return to treating each other as Americans?
What I lament is the state we are in as a country, how we seem to view our fellow Americans with such disdain. I mourn how quick we are to see ourselves as blameless and “others”— people who don’t share our views, our beliefs, our values, our backgrounds — as worthy of nothing anymore but contempt, of how easily we dismiss them as “un-American.”
I grieve for the loss of a sense of common purpose. Not agreement on specific policies or particular goals or even on our history, but on understanding and sharing the idea of America. I am filled with sorrow that we cannot even discuss the idea of a land of freedom, democracy, justice, without bitterness and recrimination; that we seem all too willing to dismiss as illusory—as a naïve, juvenile infatuation, the idea of a society where class, race, religion, gender, ethnicity, national origin, or any other “identity” is the not basis for deciding who gets to be free, who is part of our democracy, who is deserving of justice.
E.B. White once wrote, “To hold America in one’s thoughts is like holding a love letter in one’s hand—it has so special a meaning.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently.
These days it seems that the love letter with so special a meaning is one we hold and read and re-read with a sense of profound sadness, acute loss, and bewilderment.
It’s the love letter we hold in one hand while in the other is a “Dear John,” letter telling us the love has died. We read them both, flitting back and forth between the tear-stained pages of each, trying to grasp the how, the why of both.
These days it’s the “Dear John,” letter that rivets us, though. We shake our befuddled heads. “This makes no sense!” we tell ourselves. “Where did this come from, how did it happen?” we wonder.
Our tears are ones of loss and longing, but also bitter with the salt of anger, the bile of outrage. Our hands shake with the struggle to contain the urge to lash out as a temporary escape from the pain; it would feel so good we tell ourselves, but deep down we know full well that it won’t fill the void that now fills our heart and soul—that it will just show how for us, too, the love has vanished. We are filled with fear of both.
We wake in the middle of the night, unable to escape the tape-loop running incessantly in our mind. What did we do wrong? How could we have made such mistakes? Was the whole thing an illusion but merely an infatuation, as opposed to true love? Where did it go wrong? Who’s responsible?
The tape-loop isn’t one that allows us to learn from the past or do things differently the next time — it’s the completely useless effort to re-wind the past and change what has already happened. The tape-loop just deepens our confusion, our frustration; it feeds the impulse to place the blame elsewhere, to see the worst in someone else, to replace affection with abhorrence.
We wonder what it was that could possibly have led us to think we shared anything in common. The only blame we take responsibility for is that of being a fool, of being naïve, of being gullible, of being misled, of being the victim.
We resolve never to let that happen again. We decide that the only way to avoid the pain of holding a “Dear John,” letter in our hand, is to avoid ever holding a love letter again.
We seem to want to burn the “Dear John,” message into our brains and burn the love letter of America to ashes.
For all the sadness I feel these days, for how profound and deep the divide that separates any one “America” from any other “America,” I still believe we can re-discover the one thing that, even in our darkest hours, has served as a source of hope, an article of enduring faith: the idea of America.
In truth, the “Dear John,” letter just masks a fear of the hard work required to make a real love affair last; we need to treat it accordingly. Pressing the “Eject” button on the tape player is the first step to easing our confusion, lessening our frustration, reducing the negative impulses driving us apart, restoring affection.
I believe it is still possible — and more necessary than ever — to cling to the love letter and to read and re-read it because it’s the only way out of our present impasse. To do that is really the only way to understand the how and the why of where we are today, to restore a sense of shared values and common aspirations.
E. B White was right: the idea of America has so special a meaning. It is the love letter we cannot afford to let fall from our hands.
Ken Stringer is a Sequim resident.