Some stories that we tell about ourselves are constructive. Of course, we should want to be “the land of the free and home of the brave.” On the other hand, ideas such as defending “the American way of life” may be destructive. Huh? What was that?
This old American way of life has involved the belief that “we’re the best.” Although it is a practical impossibility, you can still hear it at every team rally. It involved the belief that everyone is special so that every child in a group had to receive an award for something. It involved the belief that “we deserve the best” just because we are us. We spent decades being urged to put anything we wanted on credit; America was going to spend its way into prosperity. And then the bubble burst.
We used to believe that if you applied yourself in school, worked hard, married your sweetheart, bought a house and raised a nice family, then you could pay off your mortgage, retire and probably spend your golden years traveling. The people in charge were going to put a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and men on the moon. Science would keep on inventing, cure cancer and make everything better. Energy would be abundant and ever cheaper. We would face down communism and live on in peace and security. Well, it was a nice story and we made some good progress, but a few things about that story are due for some adjusting.
We should have seen that that story was too good to believe. We presumed that our exceptional success was our special blessing from an appreciative God. We believed that we could do no wrong. Instead, it turns out that many elements of “the American way of life” were selfish and wasteful; they were built on top of the exploitation and suffering of others and caused unsustainable depletion of national and global resources. Of course, it was a heck of a ride while it lasted. But now, we can begin to see the errors in that story. It’s time to get real. It’s time to grow up. It’s time to be responsible.
We are in that uncomfortable act of reinvention between stories. Nevertheless, we still have the opportunity to pull together, invent and lead. Perhaps the greatest talent of Americans has been their willingness to come together in a crisis, embrace a common vision, and demonstrate the flexibility and adaptability to create something new and better.
But this takes a common vision, individual and collective sacrifice and plenty of hard work. Have we become too soft or uninvolved? Have our corporate interests become too greedy and shortsighted? Have we overcome “godless communism” only to fall prey to “godless consumerism” and personal indulgence?
Perhaps there is a better way. The original mission statement of the liberal organization “People for the American Way” began: "Our purpose is to meet the challenges of discord and fragmentation with an affirmation of 'the American Way.' By this, we mean pluralism, individuality, freedom of thought, expression and religion, a sense of community, and tolerance and compassion for others…” You’re not against that, are you?
We still have a chance to believe in a better future… and to create it. It’s a story worth telling. It’s a story of “strengthening the common cords that connect us as humans and citizens” while we unite to work for opportunity and justice for all.