Perspectives, Guns, and Neighbors: An Anxious America
Happy America July Holiday! E Pluribus Unum, or as I like to say, we are in this together. The sunlight of that is a working democracy. The shadow of that is a hateful spirit toward others who think differently, look unalike, or come from far-away places: the other. The first one, when working between the scale of OK to well, is a rather quiet machine with fair-minded civil servants (let’s hear it for servant leadership!). When not so well, it is like a hydra going for each of its jugglers all at the same time. Ugly, kinda dumb, and brutal all at once.
So here we are. The recent Supreme Court season was a hydra thing. Some of us heads were very concerned with the decisions of more gun carrying, separation of church/state, and Roe v Wade. The other of us heads were happy and content, a smiling hydra. Keeping smiles or wiping away frowns seem to be one of those fundamental engines of our democratic nation. So now will be more divisiveness between us smiling or frowning hydra heads. The shadow and light like standing in heavy shade just two feet away from a pounding July sun.
The question of what to do is the question of our united anxiety. At least for those of us who ask the question with sincerity and in the spirit of reconciliation. If I am on a teeter-totter (do we still have those on playgrounds-maybe we need more!), we can go up and down for some fun, but we can also strain just a little bit on each side to keep the see-saw evenly balanced. When I played as a child, that was my favorite part of the see-saw fun. It always felt more satisfactory than just going up and down with the objective of making your partner either bounce off or get queasy in the tummy. Come to think of it, it is hard to think of too many childhood games that taught us a similar balance practice. They were usually I win/you lose. So, America, build more teeter-totters!
One of my favorite reads ever was a collection of essays by Immanuel Kant (ed. by Lewis White Beck). One of those essays was “On the Old Saw: That May be Right in Theory but It Won’t Work in Practice”. The image here, a pulling on the saw one way and then another way is also a back and forth of our thinking and of our democracy. How do we saw a log without getting caught up in who is stronger/better than whom?
The teeter-tooter and the saw. Play and work. Like a scale of justice bringing balance. On balance, our play is organized and professional sports and our work is efficiency and corporate. Sports has its virtues but also lulls us into that win/lose mentality. My win is your loss and my loss is your win (all while the billionaires are smiling away!) Balance here is mitigating the zero-sum part and highlighting the cooperative spirit of sport. Balance in a corporate world is the tension between the see of production/profit and the saw of virtue. Things we kinda know deep down, but like balancing the tetter-totter, it takes some strain and energy input to each side at once.
The Middle Way. The Golden Mean. The most benefit for the most number. The 8-fold path. Balancing an equation. Distributing the load. Sharing. Equal actions and reactions. The inverse- square law. Goldilock’s bed. Just right. Philosophy, science, mathematics, and folk wisdom are full of keeping balance. And thank those Greeks for teaching us the consequence of imbalance and hubris. Icarus, where are you when we need you? Oh, yea, you crashed and left a loving father behind with grief. What’s that? Yea, I don’t know why we don’t pay more attention to your (and thus our) plight of flight.
With the people who are celebrating democracy are the ones who precisely could use more understanding and practice of balance. Our fore[fathers] had a lot figured out. We can be proud of our legislative, executive, and judicial balance of power. The skill behind balancing is, of course, asking good questions-the straining of thought for the sake of balance. Questions like how many guns are enough or why free choice for some but not for others or if one religion gets favored, why not others or what is my role to help make a better world? Balance is bringing more thinking and self-reflection to our push-button issues. Where that takes us I cannot say as someone outside the zero sum game of this power or that power, but asking sincere questions has a better chance of taking us together. I only sense a need for more critical thinking, more self-reflection, and more willingness to listen without hydra reflexes.
Education and critical thought are a help to balance. Voicing ideas as citizens in proper ways is a help to balance. Being kinder to others is a help to balance. Being neighborly is a help to balance. Being neighborly. Sounds old fashion, old-fogey, country. Yet that is a big part of our nation’s challenge, too. To balance the country and the urbane. Sunny ideas from both parts are there. The shadow is when we don’t listen because of our own habits, biases, and customs. Be neighborly, lend a shoulder, a hand, a little bit of time to those in need, all without hubris. Simply, we live beside each other. We are neighbors even in the cosmic sense. We live on Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot”, the little light amongst other little lights in universes of dark.
I think America overlooks, does not see, the greatest help of all in learning balance: our Native American heritage. Even at the relentless march of Puritan colonization, the Native Nations persist in their balancing of nature, their reasoned voice, their integrity. Thanks to the Editor of Poetry Magazine, Esther Belin, I have a new word to add to our vocabulary, K’e, a Navajo word to remind us that we are connected and need each other, “identifying who and how we are related” (Poetry Magazine, July/Aug 2022). She also has given me a new metaphor for humanity, “five-fingered beings”, a universal signifier for all [man]kind. With five fingers, humanity can pitch in for each other, can reach out a hand in welcome (not holding a weapon as the handshake originally was meant to show), can craft a tapestry of warmth, balance, and color. The “Oh beautiful, America…”.
America’s great experiment has always been to join the principle of equality with the doing spirit of American life. The old saw. I push, you pull. Neighbors marking out a land that can underwrite laws and customs and habit of thought that create dignified and supportive space for all. The American sage, Robert Frost, once asked if good fences make good neighbors? His deeper question he wanted for us though is what is in us that doesn’t love a wall? Your critical thinking assignment for now, whether you complete it in the July shade or the July sun.
Professor Robert Frost Morrow
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