As 2017 draws to a close, authors across the nation will spill their ink recapping the year as one of great polarization. Today’s vocabulary is replete with extremes, as paid political operatives from the left, right, center and sidelines all declare these to be the worst, most divisive, most challenging times anyone has ever faced.
Hyperbole may sell advertising… but it’s simply untrue.
The truth is that fear, division, and hyperbole are tyrants’ tools, and no matter how divided the Twitterverse says we are, America has weathered far worse.
Want to see real American division? Try April 1861, when brothers took up arms against each other in a war whose echoes are measured not in decades but in centuries. What about truly living on the tenterhooks of imminent nuclear attack? Try October 1962, when sirens that sent school kids skittering under their desks were moments away from actually being put to use (though to what effect remains unclear). How about an America actually on the brink of total economic failure? Try 1932, when unemployment hit 25% and worldwide gross domestic product bottomed-out 15% below its 1929 peak.
As a nation we cannot, we must not allow ourselves to be torn apart by tyranny born of mistrust for – and misunderstanding of – each other. Instead let us remember that the braids that bind us are far stronger than the spaces that separate us. We are a nation forged of different metals, alloyed into a whole that becomes stronger than the sum of its parts. We are better together, not because we are all the same but because we are different, and when we disagree we would do well to remember that our forebears enshrined the right to disagree in the words of America’s most hallowed national text.
We are now and have always been a nation of believers in things deeper than ourselves, and when we stand for something, engage with each other, and disagree both passionately and peacefully, we remind the world that disagreement does not need to equal hatred. This truth forms the core of what makes America great today, what has made us great for nearly 250 years, and what will make us great 250 years from now.
So in this time of purportedly extreme division, when “everything is at stake” and “things couldn’t possibly be worse” I say this:
America needs less intimidation and more inspiration to unleash the torrent of energy, innovation and compassion held back by dams built by those who profit from fear, division, and hyperbole.
We need to listen carefully and openly to each other, instead of listening only to those who scream the loudest.
We need something to believe in, not someone to berate.
I for one believe first and foremost that the American dream is not the promise of success, but the freedom to pursue success in the way each of us defines it without restriction by birthright, gender, race, sexuality, or creed.
I believe there is no problem that the promise of American ingenuity combined with the power of American perseverance cannot overcome.
I believe that standing up for an ideal requires strength, and that strength is born of character and courage, not bluster and bravado.
I believe that strength and violence – in word or deed – are not synonymous, and neither are love and weakness. Rather, it is love of family, of country, of community, and of God that fills America’s deepest wells of strength.
I believe the greatest gift of my public-school education is the ability to both listen to others and to think for myself, skills rarely fostered by today’s echo chamber of judgment.
Finally, I believe it is always morning in America because Americans refuse to remain fixated on the past. Fixation on the past guarantees that we miss the future, and America’s future is always brighter than its past.
In Lincoln’s first inaugural address, given just weeks before the fissures in 19th century American society fractured into open war, the President implored an injured nation to look inward and heal itself, saying:
We are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
It is high time our nation’s demons and our better angels once again had a fair fight.
About the Author
Dr. Chris DeRienzo is a physician leader from North Carolina and author of the book Tiny Medicine – One Doctor’s Biggest Lessons from His Smallest Patients. All views expressed here are his alone and are not attributable to any entity with which he may be affiliated. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDeRienzoMD and on LinkedIn.