I have always felt that my life rests on strong shoulders. Two of my grandparents, as well as two great grandparents, emigrated from Europe for a better life. When I met distant cousins in Lithuania and Ireland in 2001, it helped me understand that while my days are no more filled with love, they are far easier than theirs.
Born in 1951, I was the start of a wave of women in non-traditional roles. Teachers who believed in my intelligence and ambition offered still other shoulders. So did a dad who wanted his daughters to have a degree to fall back on should we get divorced or widowed.
Perhaps the strongest shoulders, however, are those of the people who forged our nation into the imperfect but evolving union it is today. What do I owe these people and my fellow citizens? What is required to be a good citizen today, beyond voting and following the law?
To love the US does not mean I cannot criticize it. In fact, blind obedience is the opposite of effective citizenship. We have only moved forward towards our nation’s promise through protest, as John Lewis’ life and “good trouble” demonstrate so well. The celebrated journey of his casket over a bridge where he was once almost killed speaks volumes to the progress our nation has made.
To provide effective and useful criticism, one must be an informed critic. My college political science professor had us read two newspaper sources during the 10-week trimester, then compare and contrast how each treated the same news items. I have read two newspapers, one from each side of the political aisle, ever since.
But reading across media is not enough. Proactive conversations are needed, but not in one’s bubble of like-minded folk. A bubble of shared believers is great when you need an emotional release or encouragement to act on your convictions. Otherwise, inbred conversation encourages self-righteousness—and there is way too much of that today. To be more fully informed, you need to engage in conversation across the aisle. And here, one must listen to learn, not listen to gather comments for your rebuttal. My greatest concern about “cancel culture” is it unwittingly eliminates these kinds of conversations.
My friend Jonathan is a challenging but important and welcomed friend. He voted for Trump and may do so again, a position about which I am strongly opposed. But he helped me understand why Trump won beyond the left-wing caricature of “stupid people,” and the GOP has Trump’s back for reasons beyond the fear of retaliation and a desire for power.
Sometimes I ask myself, “Can I still be friends with Jonathan if he votes for Trump a second time?” Then I dig deeper into my core values to find common ground with Jonathan. He will be my friend for life.
What I know of our Founding Fathers is that after winning independence they created a Constitution that relied on collaboration. Put simply, collaboration means that no one side has the best answer, but by listening and learning together, you can find an answer that neither side envisioned. It is different than cooperation, which in politics looks like this: “I’ll vote for the new federal lands protection act to help your reelection in Colorado if you’ll work with me to reduce environmental protections in Alaska.” Collaboration is finding the answer to: “How can we protect our federal lands and environment while also advancing our economy in Alaska?” Both-and’s are at the heart of collaboration whereas “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” dominates cooperation.
Our nation’s problems – from racism to inequality to crumbling infrastructure to education – are thorny. Tradeoffs abound. Collaboration is the only way to cut through these Gordian knots. Otherwise, we’ll be moving from one side of a pendulum of answers to another without ever moving sustainably forward.
What if, as citizens, we sought to become better collaborators? What would it require?
For one thing, we would need to develop a shared purpose that can bring two polarized sides together— perhaps to build a nation that better realizes the vision described in the preamble to our Declaration of Independence. That requires we vote not for who is best for our pocketbook, but best for our nation. Whatever criticism one has about Biden, at least he is trying to find common ground.
We would listen to learn from all sides and be humble enough to hear others’ truth. We need to seek new opportunities to meet people we do not normally encounter. Service. Community groups. Purposeful racial healing groups. Rotary.
We would accept that no one person has the right answer. This humility would be in and of itself be a welcomed addition to our discourse.
Finally, we would avoid making negative assumptions about another person’s or the other side’s motives (or if assumptions arise, ignore them). Such assumptions, especially when false, set off a cycle of mistrust that precludes useful listening, dialogue, and collaboration. Perhaps this requirement is the most challenging at a personal level. It demands that each of us have the presence of mind to understand our own reactions to others and move beyond knee-jerk responses to something more open-hearted.
Where to start being a better citizen? I am reminded of tennis great Arthur Ashe’s comment, “To achieve greatness in anything, start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”
When my Irish mother married my Lithuanian dad, both sets of parents cried, thinking their child had married “down.” My parents, on the other hand, thought they were the luckiest people in the world to meet. They expressed a generational change in attitude toward the “other” not uncommon in the US melting pot.
We need more melting to create a larger, more equitable, and sustainable pot.