Call Me When You Find America (No. 16)

This may come as a surprise to many of you (truth be told, it surprises me), but when I was a young person, I was very patriotic. I loved studying American history, and I loved the idea that there were times when it was “necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them to another one” because when government becomes destructive to the ends of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, “it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government.” I loved the idea that I was descended (well, more or less) from such a group of people and that I lived in a land under a government they had created.

The problem came, of course, when I started to understand that American history was not all Boston Tea Parties and The Bill of Rights and Daniel Boone: a lot of it was slavery and property and Japanese internment camps and so on. I ran across the best summation I’ve ever seen of this idea in a book called Dharma Girl: A Road Trip Across the American Generations by Chelsea Cain, who explains a little of how her mother went from being a suburban Catholic daughter of a military family to helping her husband dodge the draft and living on a commune: “Her identity had been closely wed to what it meant to be an American, and when what it meant to be an American suddenly included napalm and mortar fire, her self-concept began to unravel.”

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Once in college during a lunchtime argument about the lack of women in politics, my friend Hope finally said, Well, why don’t you run for office, if it upsets you so much? I probably didn’t have the answer for her at the time, but what I tried to express was that in order to participate in something–from the government to a 12-step program–you first have to have some faith, some basic belief that the thing works, and that it is good.

I am currently involved in any number of things that I am not at all sure I believe in, and it is not a pleasant state in which to exist, if you give it any thought. Happily, as I pointed out to someone the other day, the entire world is not composed of people like me, or there would be no toothbrushes. Of course, there probably wouldn’t be any Christian Coalition, which would probably be an improvement, but there also might well not be any social services, schools, or libraries, not because I don’t believe in these things, because I do, but because if all the workers of the world were like me, they’d wake up each morning wondering if it was even worth getting out of bed, if their labor and life was not in some way inadvertantly damaging the world and its people.

But I didn’t mean for this to get so bogged down. There are still things I do believe in; I just have a hard time remembering what they are some days. “I really love America,” says John Prine. “I just don’t know how to get there anymore.”