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A Birthday Lament for America

On this 243rd anniversary of the birth of the United States of America, I cannot help but reflect on the ideological divide that currently has this country in its death grip. While some would consider this progress and reason to celebrate, others lament this as a sad state of affairs. But like the frog who will instinctively jump out when thrown live into a pot of boiling water, we have been willing to sit in the cold frying pan while the heat is turned up so slowly that we've barely noticed what's happening.

In 1973, Eric Sloane published a book entitled The Spirits of '76. It was written in anticipation of then upcoming bicentennial of the United States. In this book he identifies and laments the loss of ten qualities that could be considered the foundational American mindset at the time of this nation's birth. Following are a series of quotes from The Spirits of '76. They seem appropriate to reflect on today.

The Spirit of Respect

"Respect for family, respect for the nation and the land, respect for the flag and the law, respect for mankind and respect for oneself ---these have been outstandingly wanting during the last few years. Within the family, within the nation, and to all other nations, the only hope for the survival of civilization is respect or love for one another. In the end, this is all that matters."

The Spirit of Hard Work

"Once upon a time in America, hard work was a part of life; it was one of the pleasures and satisfactions of living. Even as I write these words they have a ridiculous ring to my ear, so conditioned am I to the popular American creed of seeking the most pay for the least amount of work. Hard labor is considered either drudgery or punishment, or, at best, a necessary evil. . . Retirement from labor has become a national aim, and the physical and mental pleasure from hard work has become a vanished American spirit."

The Spirit of Frugality

"Throwing things away has become an American habit. It has been estimated that we waste more in one second than our gross national economy earning of two hundred years ago. There were no garbage dumps in those days because all leftovers were reused. . . The spirit of frugality began its decline slowly until the last few decades of acceleration, when we have overcome the fine art of saving and finally established a unique economy of waste."

The Spirit of Thankfulness

"Pioneer Americans were rich in the spirit of thankfulness. . . It was the proper way of life in those days to be grateful often and express it openly. . . The art of being thankful in America has not progressed in spite of two hundred years of all sorts of amazing things to be thankful for. The gifts of life are more and more taken for granted and the general belief is that we constantly deserve more than whatever we already have."

The Spirit of Pioneering

"Without adventure, civilization is automatically in the process of decay. . .It has always given me wonder why ninety percent of the people choose to live in ten percent of America's landscape, subjecting themselves to the insidious debasement of overcrowding. Out there between cities, in mountains and prairies, are still hundreds of thousands of empty acres of adventure and health and meaningful living, being ignored by both people and government."

The Spirit of Godliness

"A religious regard for nature and the spiritual is an indispensable element of greatness. As man develops and disturbs nature's relationship with the Creator, not only does the quality of the landscape become mediocre but the same loss of character seems to occur to the disturber himself. . . It is strange that in an age of scientific greatness, there should be an increasing mediocrity in mankind."

The Spirit of Agronomy

"Farming was the classical way of American life. . . Push-button machinery and synthetic manures have pushed agronomy so far from nature that the modern farmer is seldom more than a businessman in overalls or a rural manufacturer. . . Farming is geared only to big business and the spirit of agronomy is a vanished American trait."

The Spirit of Time

"We have become artists at the business of going fast. . . Although people used to have a righteous contempt for anything done in a rush, speed has become today's fullest measure of efficiency. Time-savers are an obsession, but the time saved is only squandered; it is like hoarding money in order to be extravagant."

The Spirit of Independence

"Everyone knows about 'the American Heritage' but, when asked, few can say what that heritage is. Boiled down to a sentence, what made us different. . . was independence and total respect for the individual. . .  Already mass produced machinery has created a mass-produced civilization in which the individual often has less importance than the machine. Individualism is in the twilight of its favor: mediocrity finds both safety and acceptance in standardization."

The Spirit of Awareness

"The most important difference between the early American and his modern counterpart, if boiled down to one word, was awareness. The early life was saturated with the essence of awareness that made living a vital experience. . . The extent of unawareness today would be unbelievable to the early American. All the necessities of life being made for you or done for you by someone unknown from somewhere unknown, produces a dehumanized existence in which the only part left for us to play is to pay out money in exchange."

These are the values I learned from my grandparents and read about in books by authors like Eric Sloane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Ralph Moody. Yet, I'd say most people today would view these ideals as antiquated or naive. Because they have all but vanished from modern thinking, I suspect that to many they make no sense, especially those who only know the rewritten version of American history.

But can you not imagine a nation (any nation) in which the individuals who lived there respected themselves and the rights, opinions, and property of others? Who respected the earth and the environment. Whose lifestyles created no waste. Who were willing to see hard work as creative and giving purpose. Who were grateful for what they had. This is the mindset we consider nostalgic and the lifestyle we consider backward. This is the spirit of America we have walked away from.

Most people would say we can't go back, and sadly, I have to agree with them. But if that's the case, exactly what are we heading toward? We are now a nation that makes demands with disrespect, tries to manipulate public opinion with political hysteria, and thinks it can force changes in behavior through restrictive laws. The problem is that these tactics do nothing to unite people in a common confidence of the proposed solution. They only deepen the divide. Is this really what we want?

What do you think?


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