Letter to America

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A letter to my homeland, on the occasion of her 246th birthday.

As extended family gathered to celebrate my grandpa’s 80th birthday, with stories and much laughter around the table, my aunt made some snarky comment. I don’t remember what she said, and it doesn’t really matter because of what came after: Grandma, then 83 and quiet, looked over at her daughter and with a demure smile said very softly, “Careful, Barbara Jean. I can still take you out behind the woodshed.” Everyone roared … and everybody believed she would!

On a very different occasion—far more private and far more serious—my dad verbally took me out behind the woodshed with no more words than his mom had used. (Ironically, as I think about it now, it was around his own 80th birthday.) I’d been complaining about the challenges of a drawn-out job search and had casually suggested he could pull some strings to get me a one-time teaching opportunity. He was quiet for a moment, then said, “Randy, you’ve got a pride problem.” The words were so unexpected and cut so deeply that it was months before I could consider honestly what truth they might hold. (They still hurt, and it’s still hard to search for the truth in them.)

Why do I start this letter to my homeland with these two stories? Because America, it’s about time someone took you out behind the woodshed. It’s about time someone told you the truth about yourself—the truth you’ve stopped seeing, stopped believing, stopped wanting to believe.

Politicians won’t tell you the truth. Their jobs depend more on being popular than truthful.

The media won’t tell you the truth. Their jobs depend more on being first, fantastic, or sensational than on being truthful.

Your opponents won’t tell you the truth. Their jobs depend on you not knowing the truth.

So who can you count on to tell you the truth? A friend. And a friend will speak the truth—even when the truth is hard—precisely because she is a friend.

There is an ancient proverb that says, “faithful are the wounds of a friend.” That is truth. But it doesn’t feel like it. No one likes to hear a friend say, “you messed up there,” or “you were wrong.” It doesn’t feel good. Sometimes it can even break the relationship. But sometimes the truth is so important that it’s worth risking that break. Sometimes it takes that hard truth and that risk to wake a friend to the painful reality they needed to hear.

And that is why I am writing you this letter: to speak the truth, as from a friend. For friend I am.

America, you are not living your best … not for yourself, and not for others. On all sides, voices clamor to preserve democracy and the “American way.” Yet many of those voices, on all sides, are using decidedly undemocratic means, behaving like children and bullies: children who pout and stomp their feet and throw a fit when they don’t get their way, bullies who rely on brute force to subdue any who would oppose them.

This is not the way of democracy, it is not living under the rule of law that has been the bedrock of that democracy, and the preservation of your life for two-and-a-half centuries.

America, you are better than this; it is time to show your better self. Grow up. Learn anew to disagree without division, the art of civil discourse. Learn again the laws and freedoms—and constraints—embedded in your constitution. Learn what it means to adapt centuries-old laws and language to 21st century society, what it is and can be and should be to live under the two jurisdictions of state and nation. Learn the strength and power of living not for yourself, but for others. For only when individuals and nations live for others will our own lives be truly preserved.

A nation divided against itself cannot stand. If the United States of America is to thrive, the states of America must be united against all enemies, foreign and domestic, without and within. Today, as we celebrate our independence, the greatest enemy may be the enemy within.

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