Thursday, September 08, 2005

America Grows Up

Mournful shock and heavy-hearted stabs at relief seem to be some of the few activities Americans of all stripes can do together as they look on in horror at what is happening to their brothers and sisters on the Gulf Coast.

Katrina provided me with a snapshot of what it means to be an American in the early 21st century. I'm happy to report that a heart still beats beneath our vulnerable frame. In realitiy we have always been vulnerable, but with an unconscious sense of immortality that adolescents possess. I think part of what is troubling America these days is that as a country we are entering early middle age. No longer the spunky idealistic youth, we are entering that time in a country's history when we start to ponder the truth that nothing lasts forever. The human response to the aging process is varied, and not suprisingly so are the responses to our country's "maturation."

Taken together, our citizenry functions as the mind of America. And just as conflicting and compatible thoughts battle for position within our head, we find ourselves in various stages of agreement or disagreement with one another as we continue to shape our identity.

The "I'm not getting older" response

Overheard saying: America is the same as it ever was, nothing needs to change.

Positive traits: Positive attitude, optimism

Negative outcomes: Strained muscles. Overstressed systems. Eventual immobility.

The "Let's turn back time" response

Overheard saying: If America just works hard enough, we can be just like we were before.

Positive traits: Positive short-term change, attractive exterior.

Negative outcomes: Shallow change. Eventual frustration when changes do not alter things fundamentally. Regret when once idealized past is remembered accurately.

The "What does it mean to be older?" response

Overheard saying: What needs to change now that America is older? How are we fundamentally different than we were before? What has not changed? What do I need to accept?

Positive traits: More reflective, as opposed to reflexive, capacity. More realistic view of what is possible. Greater sense of what is important. More likely to spend time and energy where it matters.

Negative outcomes: Can become so introspective that inactivity sets in.

A human has a remarkable tendency to operate in all three modes simultaneously. And sometimes when one response bumps against another, there is mental friction. And that is what I see happening today in America. Maybe it helps me to see the variety of reponses to the same issues as different views of problems we all want to resolve rather than through an "us against them" lens. Honestly, sometimes I can do that and sometimes I can't.

It is also helpful for me to see us mourn and help people together. It reminds me that we are all part of the same body, trying to figure this aging thing out. One thing I'm pretty sure of, America was born with great strengths and a definite character. These will not disappear just because we age. If we are lucky they will mellow and be refined, until America becomes like the treasured elders I have come to know, respect, and love.


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