The Soul of America or The Souls of Americans?
There was a recent article in the New York Times about how the two presidential candidates are fighting for the soul of America. It’s not a new idea, certainly, but always a provocative one. The author, Elizabeth Dias, made the point that in biblical Hebrew the words translated as soul, nefesh and neshama, come from a root meaning “to breathe.” The Genesis story describes God breathing into the nostrils of man, making him human.
She noted that Homeric poets saw the soul as the thing humans risk in battle, or the thing that distinguishes life from death. Plato wrote of Socrates exploring the connection between the soul and the republic in creating the virtue of justice. For St. Augustine, who wrote “The City of God,” the city could be judged by what it loves.
I was thinking about the words “The soul of America” and they reassembled in my mind to “The Souls of Americans,” and I wondered about the health of our 330 million individual souls. The combined soul of a country surely is the aggregate of all the souls residing there, is it not?
I did a check in, personally, about my own soul, and remembered that William Blake once wrote “Bless relaxes, damn braces.”
That suggests to me is that an open palm is better for you than a clenched fist. The act of blessing opens you up, but damning tightens you up.
Implicit in that notion is cooperating with opposing forces, as we’re taught in many of the martial arts, like T’ai Chi or Aikido. Rather than resisting your opponents, you work with them and, in the case of Aikido, with all holds and throws you’re both at some point actually looking in the same direction. You’re not standing still or punching back or resisting.
Blake’s line suggests the way it feels in your body when you praise or appreciate or offer gratitude. You feel open to the world and you know that doing so doesn’t diminish you. You sometimes have to dig deep and bless or express gratitude for someone or something and you just don’t want to. You would rather stay rigid and unyielding and in your story. That is sure true for me. I don’t want to give credit to someone because I’m convinced my narrative about them is the right or most complete one, needing no amendment.
Like last night, driving home from work, I noticed a new political banner up on a house I always drive by. One word, one name, in big red letters, and I braced, in Blake’s sense. I got all tense for a few seconds, all pissed off and thinking ill of the people who live there, whom I have never met and know nothing about. I talked myself down off the ledge and let go of it, but I’m here to tell you, it didn’t feel good. I felt stony and hard-hearted, very far from the lines of the hymn I grew up with — “It is well with my soul.”
That’s just one example and I’m sure you have your own. You’re tempted to stand firm in your story, but from somewhere comes the suggestion that you could choose to unclench your fist and open your palms and bless. Then you do it and some energy is released back to you.
Thomas Moore wrote in Care of the Soul that “The uniqueness of a person is made up of the insane and the twisted as much as it is of the rational and normal.” Easy to forget that souls need care, whether national or individual.