October 1. “You have been given citizenship in a country like non other on earth, with opportunities available to you like nowhere else on earth. What will be asked of you is hard work; nothing will be handed to you…Use your education and success in life to help those still trapped in cycles of poverty and violence. Above all else, never lose faith in America. Its faults are yours to fix, not to curse.” (General Colin Powell)
As I begin the 4th quarter of this project, I get to chew on quite a meaty quote from the esteemed General Powell.
I was born and raised in a Midwestern state in America. My 8th grade year in school was 1976, and for that Spring and Summer I lived and breathed American patriotism. My teachers were members of the Greatest Generation who had fought and lived through World War II, whether on the battlefields or back at home. I was taught that this great experiment of a country was something special, something about which to be proud.
We had our problems as a country to be sure. The 70s were a time of great tumult socially, starting with the unpopular war in Vietnam, and ending with the Iranian hostage crisis. In between there was a scandal that felled a President, a recession that bogged the economy, skyrocketing inflation and crushing unemployment. But none of that stopped my peers and I from being proud to be Americans.
I am sure that I was filled with youthful ignorance of what was really happening in the world. Cynics will say that I was fed a line and believed it, that this country wasn’t great, and that disillusionment was the order of the day, and I was blissfully unaware as I plodded through grade school and high school. But none of that changes my view of my country. I believed then, and I believe now, that I have the privilege to live in one of the greatest countries in the history of humankind.
Every day people risk their lives trying to get in. They sneak across, or under the border. They pile into ramshackle boats for a treacherous journey. Some sneak onto planes with the sole purpose of just trying to get here. Others ply the government for work visas just so they can come here and do jobs that too few of us who have lived here all our lives want to undertake. And they do it not because they think America is a second rate country; they do it because this country is, and has been the land of opportunity.
I am no longer a wide eyed youth. I have my own share of cynicism –or as I like to call it – realism. I am not blind to the problems that we face. Poverty, drugs, disillusionment, violence. They all take their toll. The difference between me and some is that I am not willing to condemn the country, or our way of life.
There is a long list of things that will raise my ire, and get my blood pressure up. Few work as quickly, or as effectively as when someone who is an immigrant to this country complains about how bad it is here, and how this is such a terrible country, in words broken by accent. My visceral reaction is always to offer the idea that flights are departing daily for their homeland, and to remind them that no one is holding a gun to their heads to keep them here. Politeness keeps that reaction within, but I seethe with anger when it happens.
The crux of this long quote from General Powell is that there is little room for idle complaints. His reminder that the problems of this country are ours to fix and not curse, rings true with me.
Back in 1960, President Kennedy exhorted the crowd to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That call to action and service is as valid today as it was nearly 55 years ago.
Today my reflection is on whether I am doing enough as a citizen to make things better. Am I making enough of a contribution for the good of the country? Or am I just getting by and taking care of myself. Heady questions for a Fall morning.