Would The U.S. Light Up The Room?

I like to think so.

Photo Credit: Scott King

One of the best parts of being a college student is having your ideas challenged. Today I had mine challenged.

Leading into this fall semester, I had the joy of telling people that my back to back morning classes were ethics and American government. You can hear the answers now, I’m sure. “How do those two fit together?” “How can you take those two seriously back to back? The government is so corrupt!” It goes on and on. I got the laughs and subtle jabs all summer.

I started to believe them as well. How could a government which can seem so “corrupt,” as many put it, fit in so well right after an ethics class? (For you realists, it was just a scheduling setup.) But, taking the courses back to back is giving me some perspective that I didn’t have until now.

Today I confronted the idea of the death of the United States. Not by fire, not by violence, but just by history. How would the history books remember us? Would we be missed? Did we make progress in our democratic experiment?

I like to think so, but only history will know the answer to that question.

So, let’s dive in.

We watched a talk for ethics class. It was a man by the name of David Brooks, a conservative columnist and commentator. He was talking about the arc of the country, and where we have gone since our inception. Brooks talked about virtue.

I don’t consider myself to be some angelic member of society, but I like to think I pay my fair share of effort and time into the mission of a better world. But, as I watched this talk (and later discussed it in class) there was a realization that hit me: I’m not contributing in the right ways.

Brooks laid out two sets of ideas, or the “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” The two differ in their goals, purpose, and effect on the world.

Resume virtues are what we bring to society. These are skills, traits, and attributes that are our base working self. Are you good at your job? Do you have a marketable skill? Are you a good team leader? Things like this. They comprise the core of who we are as a society today. We all want to be marketable and put on our pretty face to the rest of the world.

Eulogy virtues are what we will be remembered by. Did we have a capacity to love deeply? Did we bring joy into the lives of our friends and family? Will people miss us when we are gone? These are goals we aspire to, but often fall short of.

This concept was an interesting segue into my government class. We talked about the makeup of the US government, and theories of governance. As a class we listed things we would like to see in our governement. This turned out words and phrases like separation of power, efficiency, transparency, and stability. I couldnt help but hear these as “resume virtue” words since it was no more than 15 minutes later.

I began to think to myself that if we are so focused on things like efficiency and stability, we are losing our “eulogy virtues” in the folds of time.

If you begin to examine the nature of our country there are some trends that appear, and they signal a move to a more narcissistic society.

In 1950, 12% of students in a particular survey responded that they viewed themselves as very important. This number had inflated to 80% by 2005. Mean narcissism scores shot up 30% over 55 years.

If you think about the state of the nation, it makes sense. The post WWII era US had many societal injustices, but there was a unified purpose. There was a sense of pride in being a world leader. We were humble, but in our humility we came together to build great things, discover insane technological advancements, and we even put a man on the moon. This is what a group of people who see themselves as part of a whole can do together.

In our current era of hyper-partisanship, the “me” aspect of society has taken over. Now we have threats to shut down our government over political posturing, we gut social programs that lift people out of poverty, we neglect education and nutrition for children who are out future, and we don’t research as much anymore. We prioritize the “me” and do not focus on the “we.”

We are building resumes, and this is a time when we should be building what we want to be remembered by.

The gap between what we see ourselves as (our national “self) and who we are as a nation is pretty large. The bastion of freedom and democracy is currently prone to lots of fighting and a lack of compromise. The grease in our gears of progress isn’t doing enough these days.

So with these thoughts in mind, consider how we will be remembered when our days are numbered? Will we have overreached? Will we have faltered on our base commitments of freedom, community, and commitment to the dream of a better future?

Will we have strived for greatness and lead with compassion, empathy, and understanding? These are the questions that aren’t being asked, and we aren’t even contemplating their answers.

If we return to leading with out ideals instead of leading in a fashion that fills out our historical resume, we can be remembered as the greatest republic in the history of humanity.

It is important to note that this approach has no partisan affiliation. American ideals are just that, American. No one party has the right to claim them, just as no one person can claim the uniquely American mantle.

We need to start asking ourselves if people at our “funeral” would eulogize us with heart and soul, or would they fall flat? Would the world care if we were gone?

If we begin to fill the world with light, and draw people to our infectious desire to lead, to help, and to always make our future brighter I think we can be remembered greatly.

This isn’t a story of politics, of American exceptionalism, or even of the decline of America. This is a gentle reminder that if we stop being the light, someday we will not be able to say that we lived up to our creed.

We cannot chase the label of world leader, we need to be the world leader. We cannot chase the label of ally and friend, we need to be one. We cannot chase the label of American, we need to be one.

Let’s light up the room.