THE SOUL OF AMERICA

 

 

“In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. But if we are to live together, and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet… Love is wise; hatred is foolish.”
                                                      ~  Bertrand Russell

 

Like millions of other people in America and around the world, I am deeply concerned not only about the direction, the health, and the safety of our country, I am concerned about its soul. Our soul.

How did meanness and bullying become acceptable? How did bravado come to be admired? How and why did fear, hate and disrespect erupt and spread like a disease among us?

I’ve heard the theories – perhaps you have too – that hidden dis-ease rising to the surface is a good thing.

Actually, it CAN be a good thing, but it IS NOT automatically a good thing.

We now know what has been lurking in our core. We see the fear and hate that needs to be addressed if we want to remain a strong democracy. That’s the good part. We can choose to face our national ills with the resolve to become a nation healthier than ever before. I hope and pray that we will respond this way because, like the human body, as a country we can heal or we can succumb to illness.

When I was diagnosed with stage 4 non-curable lymphoma, it seemed like very bad news. But my daughters helped me to see that having a hidden cancer come to the surface in the form of a lump was a good thing. Aware of the cell-growth dysfunction and the danger in my body, I could confront the growing disease. And I did. Understanding that life itself and my body were on my side, I gave healing my all. Along with treating the cancer with standard medical therapies, I treated my whole body with love for life, deep hope, courage and compassion, joy and laughter, prayer and meditation, beauty in many forms, and with an absolute-faith-filled-resolute conviction that I would heal. One might say that along with chemotherapy, I successfully treated my dis-ease with soul qualities. That’s how I see it.

Like a cancer that so many of us have had diagnosed, it is urgent that we address America’s dis-ease now before it metastasizes, eats away at our vitality, and destroys our democracy.

I disagree with those who say we should simply trust and let the present course run its course. I believe we must not take the “watch and wait” approach for the dis-ease that is raging within and among us.

Am I being overly dramatic? Reactionary? Some might say so. I’m certain some will.

But what if we are like the frog in a pot of warm water simmering to higher and higher temperatures? If we don’t act soon, soon it may be too late. In case you are unfamiliar with this metaphor, imagine placing a living frog in a pot of boiling water. With good sense, the frog will jump out immediately. However, if a frog is placed in a pot of cold water that is slowly heating, the frog will adjust the rising temperature and succumb to the boiling water, losing its life.

Along with the experience of facing cancer and the metaphorical lesson of the frog in hot water, an experience I had as a college freshman is informing and inspiring me now.

I entered college in the fall of 1967. That year the student government had instituted a mild hazing program as part of freshman orientation. For one week we first year students were required to wear a beanie and a sign that identified our name, home city and state, and major field of study. There were other silly rules. Freshmen were expected to address all upper classmen as ma’am or sir. Certain sidewalks were off limits. We were also expected to recognize the student senators and be able to sing the school’s song accurately upon any and every request. All of this was intended to build camaraderie and get us involved in campus life. Although the intention was honorable and the activities did build spirit, that initiation was demeaning. Then it went too far.

Near the end of the week, two senior senators asked us to attend a special meeting. Like obedient sheep, we filed in. Our class of students filled the 500 seats set up for us on the large gym floor. One of our fellow-classmates sat on the raised stage. One of the senators held scissors. The other spoke into the microphone, explaining their action. Our classmate was going to be used as an example. He had broken too many orientation rules. And, he had “unacceptable” long hair that must be eliminated.

“If anyone doesn’t like this, you can leave this auditorium right now. But if you do, you will be leaving this university,” that senator ranted. “I assure you we have the right to do this.” He went on to explain that they were acting “in loco parentis,” which is to say they had authority to act like our parents and we were to submit to their disciplinary actions as we would to our parents. I didn’t understand the legality or the truth of that, I just knew that I felt shocked, confused, and frightened.

I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. I wanted to stand and yell No! I felt sure that, if I did, others would join me. Perhaps the entire freshman class would stand against the action. The word NO swelled inside me. But I sat still and held it in.

From the time I started kindergarten, I had heard that I was destined for college. My parents had worked and saved so that I could attend. Neither of them had even finished high school.

Although he loved learning and received good grades, my father quit high during his senior year of high school because he wanted to serve the ideals of the United States and protect her, without delay. He enlisted voluntarily and became a U.S. Army foot soldier.

My dad was among the many who were shot during WW II. While marching through the Herkimer Forest, a bullet lodged in his chest, right next to his idealistic heart. Fortunately for me and many others, he survived that bullet. Young Stephen Albert went on receive the Purple Heart award and to meet the women he would love as much as country, the women who would become my mom after she quit school to join the workforce and support the American effort in her own way.

Every night during my primary grades my dad would check my written homework, drill me in spelling, and listen to my multiplication tables. Both my parents encouraged me in every way they could through all the grades. They were so excited when I received letters of acceptance from several colleges. Just a few days before this incident, the three of us made a nine-hour journey to my first-choice school. I remembered the pride I saw on their faces when we said good-bye.

Certainly the student senators didn’t have the authority to cut another student’s hair. It was wrong! Yet…it was just a haircut, I rationalized, as I squirmed in my chair.

So, I sat, stifling the “No” that strained to scream. I continued to hope that someone – surely someone – would stop the misuse of power.

But no one did. And so I watched as that young man’s long brown locks were chopped and dropped to the floor. Through the rest of meeting I sat in disbelief and self-censure, thinking, “I’m a coward.”

I chose not to speak because I was afraid for my own security. An embarrassing example might be made of me. Or worse. I thought I might indeed be asked to leave the university due to the “in loco parentis” authority they cited.

Over the years, sadness and shame re-surfaced whenever I recalled that event until I recognized the compassion, the wisdom, and the call to courage that the lesson offered.

My own self-protective fear helped me to understand – in part, at least – why some people allowed the Holocaust to happen. They too were afraid. They rationalized. They bought the story that others were to blame. Others must be punished. Others must be eliminated.

But mostly, that haircut taught me that we must watch with great care and love for our Constitution. We must question authority and object when it misuses power. We must not wait and assume that someone else will protect the rights of all. We must stand. We must speak. This I believe. At least I know this is true for me.

And, at this time, as I see the potential of enormous abuses of power, I know that I must pay attention. I must question. I must stand and speak.

What do you believe? Please consider your life lessons. Might there there be at least one touchstone experience that urges you to resist the fear propaganda and to focus instead on all that is good and promising? To choose love instead of fear and hate?

We seem to have lost sight of what is truly great in America the Beautiful. We need a vision that is much higher and bigger than making money. We need to build wealth of soul, our own souls and the soul of America…

Millions of Americans are seeing red flags and hearing warning bells now…

I’ve heard some say “Don’t worry. Our system of checks and balances will work.” So far, I’m not seeing that. Are you? It seems to me we are seeing a deliberate and dangerous demeaning of our judicial system and of the media. We are seeing what appears to be the intention to dismantle many departments and many aspects of what has been our imperfect but strong government.

I’ve also heard that as a young nation, we are like adolescents, believing we are invincible. No serious harm will come to us, we say like the cocky teen who dares to walk on the rails as the approaching train whistles and the steel vibrates under his feet. Like every teen who thinks “I won’t get caught, I won’t get hurt.” The truth is: we are vulnerable, just as Germany was.

Like a threat of cancer in the body, we must recognize threats to our Constitution. We must address it in the wisest way and do all we can to restore the strength and vitality of America – her land, her laws, her ideals, her people. We do this best by being the values we admire, being the change we want to see. Instead of looking exclusively to others to address the critical challenges, we must each empower ourselves and contribute toward restoring and advancing the health of our country with love, with great care, with wisdom, with hope. We must also listen to one another with respect and with the intention to understand instead of preparing to argue.

Consider how we are like cells in the human body. We may think we are small, one of many, with little influence or power to make a difference. But the truth is that each cell matters. We matter, you and I. Each of us matters, especially in our differences and diversity.

Recognizing this, embracing this value, this power, within ourselves and others is a first step toward healing the whole of who we are as Americans and toward restoring our soul.

As British philosopher and Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell said, “In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. But if we are to live together, and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet… Love is wise; hatred is foolish.”

He also said, “Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.”

Love IS wise; Fear IS foolish. We must choose love. Compassion too. With wisdom and hope.

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