In January 1978, Kris and I were married in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—admittedly not the most propitious time weather-wise for a wedding. We’d saved our money, enabling us to honeymoon in Europe, spending a month with a friend in Switzerland and then traveling as cheaply as possible to Italy and France. One example of the times and our frugality: the pleasant bed-and-breakfast where we stayed in the heart of Paris for three weeks cost just over eight dollars per night!
When we departed for the old continent, I was happy to turn my back on the new. Jimmy Carter was president, the country was in a recession, our foreign policy was in shambles, and the future seemed dire. Bye-bye and good riddance.
But by the time we returned to the U.S. in April, I was ready to kiss the tarmac.
Oh, we had a great time overall. Every day was an adventure as we visited monuments, ruins, and art museums, tasted different foods, became acquainted with our friend’s left-wing student buddies, and watched the spring slowly shower its gifts on gardens and parks.
But we both arrived home with a renewed appreciation of our country. We were homesick for some of the usual things—hamburgers, for example, and conversations that didn’t leave us mentally drained from trying to communicate in a foreign language—but mostly we just missed the familiarity of our land and its people. “Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,” wrote Sir Walter Scott, “Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land!” I wasn’t thinking those words when our plane touched down in New York, but I sure was feeling them.
But I wonder: Would the same emotion hold true today? Would I depart that aircraft and want to fall to my knees in thanksgiving for the United States of America?
Things are different now. The mess in our country dwarfs the problems we faced 40 years ago. Many of the economic problems of the 1970s plague us once again today, but we’re also a nation sharply divided by cultural and political turmoil. Many among us have become our country’s worst critics, ignoring the good we’ve done and highlighting our faults and flaws, and we’ve drifted far from the principles that gave Americans our strength and our hope.
In Edward Everett Hale’s story, “The Man Without a Country,” protagonist and Army officer Philip Nolan, on trial for his involvement with the treacherous Aaron Burr, condemns America, saying, “I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” The court grants Nolan’s wish, condemning him to a lifetime aboard various ships, never touching foot in America and with the crews instructed never to mention the United States in his presence. Decades later, a ship’s officer visits the dying Nolan, finds he has turned his tiny cabin into an American shrine, and tells him what has taken place in his country in the years since his trial.
Sometimes I feel like Nolan, but in reverse. He built his shrine to America in his later years, whereas mine first came under construction in elementary school, when we learned about our nation’s past and when I read on my own time the stories of the men and women who had built our country. Over the years, reading more history and witnessing firsthand the changes for the better—the end of segregation, for example, the material improvement of so many lives, and the technological advances unimaginable to me in boyhood—deepened my love of country.
But there my similarities with Philip Nolan’s story end. The patriotism embraced in “The Man Without a Country” seems muted nowadays, regarded as passé by some, despised by others. On bad days—and this is one of them—I scan the litany of online headlines and commentary, despairing for our future and the American Dream.
Like some other writers here at Intellectual Takeout, I have frequently suggested ways we might restore and defend our American liberties, ideals, and way of life. Often, I have advised focusing on the basics, the simple everyday things: nurturing our relationships with family and friends, turning our homes into tiny citadels of civilization, overseeing our children’s education, and even flying the Stars and Stripes from our front porches.
Time to heed my own advice. Time to revive a Latin tag I love: Dum spiro, spero. “While I breathe, I hope.”
And so to myself I say: Suck it up. Knock off the doom-and-gloom and the pity party, and walk in the sunlight.
Onward, then, and staggering forward.
Image Credit: Pxhere6 comments