By Mary Summerbell
Recently I took a trip to Virginia and Washington, D.C. As I traveled the historic triangle of Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg, and trod about monument mall, past the White House and the Capitol, seeing the sites on the typical touristy tours, something stirred in me – a flutter I hadn’t felt since I was a school girl in 4th and 5th grade, holding my hand over my heart, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance….
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Those weren’t just empty, memorized words to me. I took them seriously, thinking what they meant to me as I said them each morning. In the innocence and optimism of childhood I was proud to be an American. And I loved my country in my own naive, idealistic way.
Then, in 6th grade, something terrible happened. Something unfathomable. President Kennedy was assassinated. Then, five years later, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. I grew up in an age of political assassination and sometimes violent political protest – over Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, the Vietnam War. I came of age during the Cold War, in the shadow of the threat of nuclear annihilation, more than apprehensive; not just about my own future but the future of the whole world. Heavy duty worries for a kid.
And, though I didn’t know it then, before I reached puberty I was already somewhat jaded and pessimistic about history and current events. If not cynical, I was certainly skeptical – questioning the fairness and effectiveness of politics and government, the unbalanced power structure of it all.
I’ve never considered myself to be very patriotic. I’m glad I was born in the United States because of the advantages of it. But I’m not keenly interested or involved in political information, process or events. Although I vote, and believe strongly in voting. Much blood was shed for me to have this privilege and I do my best to make an informed choice. And I did picket Governor Walker at the state capitol, so I guess some issues are important enough for me to engage in a little civil disobedience.
I very much enjoy the 4th of July fireworks, and ponder on what they celebrate every time I see them. But I am a pacifist. I felt fortunate to be female, to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War. Veterans Day and Memorial Day are difficult days for me. I feel so torn – between honest appreciation for the heroic sacrifices of veterans, wanting to honor them – and my deep, deep love of peace.
It was with such ambivalence that I viewed much of what I saw on my trip. History is conflicted, confusing, ambiguous, paradoxical, often with no certainty of basic facts. I could see contradictions everywhere. To me, one of the ultimate ironies of American history is that George Washington – leader of the American Revolution, beloved Father of our country – iconic image all but wallpapered over Washington, D.C. and Mount Vernon, was the owner of slaves all his adult life, in his will freeing only one, his personal servant, the rest set to be released at Martha’s death, but actually passed on as inheritance. Even as he fought at Valley Forge he hired someone to find and return his runaway slaves. Yet no one marched with placards there saying “Black Lives Matter.”
Thomas Jefferson, 3rd president of the United States, and writer of our Constitution, among many great achievements, adamantly protected his considerable slave assets, even as he helped with legislation to criminalize slave trade and ban slave importation in Virginia. After his wife died he had a family with one of his slaves – a relationship and genealogy officially confirmed only when genetic testing made it undeniable.
When we look at the past through the lens of the present it’s easy to slip into judgements based on current perspectives. It takes constant mental vigilance to keep historical events in context. And context is critically important because we are all products of our environment. And we all do things differently depending on our levels of awareness and caring, and our abilities and the resources available to us.
George Washington grew up with slavery, inheriting ten slaves at the age of eleven. It was a way of life, full of complexities, making it hard to change. He once tried, but failed, to sell and rent land for money to emancipate slaves. One hurdle to selling his slaves was personal resolve not to break up families. Also, he didn’t want to set slaves free with no place to go and no means of survival. He and Jefferson both supported gradual emancipation, allowing time for slaves to acquire education and skills to live independently. But Washington’s biggest reason for not being more publicly against slavery is that he didn’t want to risk stirring up a controversy strong enough to split apart the new nation of the United States of America.
Considering all this we can see a fuller, truer picture of George Washington’s nature and character. We can see beyond the mythical, god-like hero image, and also not see him as a self-conflicted hypocrite. We can see him realistically, as a human being, an individual, doing his best in his time to live by his convictions, and by example inspiring others. And that’s the best that any of us can do at any time.
A realization that intensified for me on my trip is how differently I’ve seen things at different times in my life. As a child, I saw things mostly with good guy/bad guy simplicity – cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, wicked witches and fairy godmothers. But as I grew and learned and expanded my consciousness through experience, the more and more elusive and inexplicable life has become. Life – so complex, so multi-faceted. So dang confounding, when you can see both sides, or many perspectives, of a situation.
For example, our forefathers, arriving from the Old World to create a New World, braved the ocean and the elements, facing sickness and starvation as they formed settlements and fought the Revolutionary War. But ironically, as they fought for their own life and freedom they eventually all but destroyed the indigenous people of this land, repeatedly lying to and cheating them, blatantly breaking promises made. Did Native Americans in their council sessions then say, “We have an immigration problem?” Probably not. But that’s one way of seeing their situation. If we see the whole picture we can see natives and settlers alike as both heroes and as villains. And see them all as justified in fighting for their survival, lifestyle and beliefs. The more of an overview we take, the more unifying factors we see.
Most of my life I’ve been quite idealistic. But I am slowly changing, coming to see ideals as impossibly unattainable goals. One of the definitions of ideal is “existing only in the mind; imaginary.” An ideal is something of perfection that can never be achieved. It is something we hold high and strive for but can never accomplish. And if success is reaching that goal then we are not only doomed to perpetual failure but our efforts don’t count. How futile and stressful and frustrating.
But a principle is a guiding light by which we direct our lives. Principles show us a way to go. And when we follow them, every step we take is a success, every effort its own reward. Values also give us direction, guide our lives. We make choices based on what we value most. Unlike ideals, principles and values are flexible; they can change and grow as we change and grow, and they are infinitely, creatively adaptable to all life situations.
On my trip to Washington, D.C. I really thought about the United States being founded on the principles of freedom and equality. I’ve heard the words all my life, but for some reason they took on new meaning for me. Something different. Something more. It dawned on me how truly innovative such a concept was at the time of our country’s birth. It was unprecedented in history for a country to be founded on the individual rights of the people, with no king or queen. And to be self – governed…..what a concept!
Previously I had focused on the flaws of this new system – how slaves and women were not originally included in “all men.” That a horrible Civil War had to be fought for slaves to have their freedom. And the Women’s Suffrage Movement necessary for women to have rights even now not equal to men. That in the beginning there was no real freedom from religious persecution. I was critical of the less than perfect leaders of this new country, and the inconsistencies and contradictions obvious to me from a modern perspective. I didn’t consider that this was a principle that could and would evolve – in a process that would take time to develop its expression, according to the interpretation of it by the citizens of the United States.
My most significant insight was that America is founded not as much on political principles as on spiritual principles. It has a structure of government – the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights. But these documents serve the higher purpose of Soul. Soul is Freedom and our country is based on Freedom. I never thought if it like that before. Because I see things differently now, I have new hope, new affection, new appreciation for my country, born of a more mature understanding of its origins and purpose.
I am ready to be a different kind of citizen – one who will act not out of old energies of patriotism or idealism but from new energies of humanism and pragmatism – energies conducive to practicality, efficiency and unity.
Heading into a presidential election this fall, I had been, so far, very disheartened by what I saw as the obvious likely options. For the first time in my life I was seriously considering the possibility of not voting, or voting for a third party candidate, simply because I don’t trust either of the presumptive presidential candidates. With Clinton involved in criminal investigations for possible mishandling of government documents as Secretary of State, and Trump accused of fraud regarding his now defunct university – I didn’t see either one as a good choice.
But now I feel more relaxed, more accepting, more open to unseen possibilities. I have a “wait and see, anything can happen” attitude. Whoever is elected our next president, we the people can rally in a positive way to further the evolution of the United States of America and our founding principles.
I am especially encouraged by the senior power now present in the United States. In America’s aging population of baby boomers we have a cache of experienced wisdom unprecedented in our history. Let’s use it for the greater good of all. I am proud to be one of these elders, to lovingly and willingly serve Soul’s purpose for my country in ways that far exceed anything I imagined as a school girl oh those many years ago.