Letter #9: A New Patriotism
July 2, 2021
Sunday is an important day. Across the country, people will be traveling to see family members they haven’t seen in months, eating great BBQ, and watching fireworks shows that span the spectrum from Mammy and Pappy setting off a couple ground spinners on their farm in West Virginia to massive coordinated events like what we will see here in DC. It is a time of celebration…a time to celebrate the idea of America.
But this year is a little bit different, and I feel a twinge of sadness as the holiday approaches.
The Fourth of July is a holiday where we celebrate our independence as Americans. It’s a day full of patriotism — a day to be proud of our country and proud to wear the American identity. We think of freedom and opportunity. We think of the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — words used by our Founders as they drafted the Declaration of Independence.
I am a patriot. I am fiercely proud to be an American. But sadly, the word “patriotism” has been hijacked and has become almost a dirty word today. It doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to. There are those in leadership today who abuse the word and twist its meaning — turning it into a dark reflection of what it is meant to be.
When these leaders speak of patriotism, they focus solely on individual freedom and individual rights — often at the expense of others. These leaders pit us against one another in a zero sum game — telling us that we must hold onto and protect the individual freedoms of our own little group at all costs — regardless of the impact on other Americans. We have fractured into many groups in this country — into tribes that believe we have a right to act and do and say whatever we want, whenever we want. We have been fooled into believing that this is American freedom.
This, in fact, is not American freedom. A devotion to that idea is not patriotism…it is selfishness. That is not the freedom that my buddies and I and millions of other courageous men and women throughout our history fought so hard on foreign shores to protect.
Patriotism is defined as a love for and devotion to one’s country. Being an American patriot means having a commitment to the idea of America…a commitment to a nation that stands for the freedom of lasting meaningful choices for all. America is a nation of, by and for the people. That means that as an American patriot, my commitment and devotion to the betterment of America is a commitment and devotion to the betterment of its citizens. It’s a commitment and devotion to one another — not just to myself or those in my little group who think, look and act like I do.
Yes, American Democracy provides unparalleled freedom and rights — but with those rights and liberties come duty and responsibility. Our freedom isn’t free, and the cost of that freedom is not meant to be borne solely by a warrior class of men and women in military uniform, as too many Americans seem to think. For American Democracy to work, the cost of freedom must be borne by all American citizens — by all of us.
None of us lives on a deserted island. We live in a country with 330 million other people of every shape, size, race, color and creed. Our actions have an impact on other people — on other Americans. All of us rely on other Americans so that we can live a life of freedom, happiness and hope. We all depend on each other.
We need to redefine patriotism. We need to take it back by living out a new patriotism. But what should this new patriotism look like in action?
To answer that question, I want to tell you a story about something that happened a few weeks ago. The hero in this story is not me. In fact, I am regrettably the villain in this story. The hero of the story is a kid only slightly older than you. I hesitated to tell you this story because I am pretty ashamed of my thoughts and actions during this event, but the point of the story is important, and the hero of the story has given me hope for what our country can become, so I want to share it with you.
A couple months ago, a group of hackers forced a company called Colonial Pipeline to shut down its network of 5,500 miles of pipeline, triggering gas shortages and panic all over the country. Then people caused even more severe shortages as they rushed to their local gas stations and tried to fill their vehicles, jerry cans, jugs, and any other container they could find to ensure their families didn’t run out of fuel.
We were getting ready to travel to visit Mammy and Pappy in West Virginia, and because of the shortages, I decided to go out and try to track down some gas so we could make the trip.
I went to gas station after gas station — all of them with “No fuel” signs posted prominently. Finally, I pulled into one of the few remaining stations in the area — an Exxon station in a more rundown part of the city. There was a long line of cars, so I maneuvered our car into the line and began to wait. I was annoyed — this was going to take a while.
As I inched the car forward, I began to take notice of the car directly in front of me. It was an old beat-up jeep with numerous dings and dents in the body and a badly-rusted quarter panel that looked like it was about to fall off — reflecting either neglect by the owner or just an inability to take it into the shop to get it fixed. There was a young kid behind the wheel — barely older than you. He had his window rolled down, and he was blasting the radio — dancing in his seat to the beat of the music. I rolled my eyes and waited (I know, I know…I’m a terrible, grumpy old adult).
Finally my turn came, and I eased the car up to the pump. As I got out of the car, I saw that the kid was parked at the pump in front of me. As I walked up to the pump, he saw me and started walking toward me. “Oh great,” I thought. “This kid’s going to beg for money…or ask me to pay for his gas…or buy him alcohol or cigarettes.”
“Hey Mister,” the kid said as he got closer.
“Yeah, what’s up?” I said as I braced myself, thinking of all the various excuses I could use to get out of giving him money.
“Do you need gas?” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked with a confused look on my face.
“Well, I was just wondering if you need gas. I pre-paid $30 at the register inside, and I’m full now. There’s still $6 left on this pump, and I just wanted to see if you wanted it,” he said with a kind smile on his face.
I felt flush as blood raced to my face in embarrassment. I fumbled and stammered my words, “No…kid, that’s ok. I don’t need it. Just…just go inside and get your change at the counter.”
The kid looked back at me with an almost sympathetic look on his face. “No, seriously, man…just take it. I know there ain’t much gas around here, and times are tough for everybody. I don’t need the change right now.”
I stared back at him in complete disbelief — a feeling that was immediately replaced by an overwhelming sense of wonder and gratitude. “Thank you, kid,” I mumbled. I felt like crying or giving him a hug right there in the gas station parking lot.
“Sure thing,” he said with a big grin on his face. “Have a great day, man.” And then he jumped into the driver seat, cranked up the music, and drove off dancing in his seat.
I was stunned. That boy obviously needed the money. He had to pay cash for gas because he most likely couldn’t qualify for a credit card — a luxury that I just took for granted. His clothes were worn and his car was on it’s last leg. At an uncertain moment when we were in the middle of a nationwide gas shortage, instead of him wondering, “How can I get mine?” he went out of his way to think about someone other than himself. He was willing to sacrifice something to help me, a total stranger, with absolutely no expectation of anything in return. With that one small act, he spoke clearly to me that we’re all in this together.
What does it say about me and about the state of our country when a simple, humble act of selflessness and sacrifice from that kid could move me almost to tears? Something is broken inside of us…inside the American identity…and that kid has the secret to fixing it.
“That boy is our future,” I thought. “That is what patriotism is and must be. That is how we get out of this mess.”
It’s time to reclaim the word patriotism. We need to inspire and spread a new patriotism — one defined by a fierce pride and devotion to the idea of America and also characterized by acts of selfless sacrifice and service to others. We need a new patriotism that is characterized not by what my nation owes to me as an individual citizen, but by how I can give of myself to make the life of my fellow citizens more hopeful, happy and free.
We don’t need a President to save us, Trin. We don’t need Congress to save us. We don’t need social media celebrities to save us. We just need us. We need you and me. We need an army of everyday citizens emboldened by this new patriotism.
I am a proud American, but that doesn’t mean that I believe that we’re perfect. We have many flaws and imperfections. We have made many mistakes. But as we live out this new patriotism, we can be better. We must work together to be what we are meant to become. Because it is in the striving that we can become a nation that can deliver on the promise of freedom and inspire hope for all Americans and to the rest of the world.
You and that boy at the gas pump are part of a generation that can be defined by this new patriotism, Trinity — a patriotism that can save our democracy and rescue all of us from ourselves. I have hope for you and for him and for what can be for all of us.
This weekend as we watch the fireworks and eat really good BBQ with family and friends, I want you to remember my words…and remember that through this letter, I am committing to you that I will work tirelessly to spread this new patriotism…a patriotism that defines the America I fought for — a nation that you, too, can be fiercely proud of.
I love you,