Independence Day: Patriotism, exclusion, and revolutionary compassion

Independence Day

Independence Day

Yesterday was Independence Day, July 4th.  As you know, it is an American holiday to mark the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the brand new United States of America saying to Great Britain, “No, sorry, we’re not going to live with this anymore – we’re taking matters into our own hands.”  It is also the anniversary of some very famous words:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I celebrated like many Americans did:  I spent time with friends and then went out to watch fireworks.  While out to watch fireworks, I noticed how almost everyone was dressed in red, white, and blue, especially kids.  There were tons of kids dressed impressively in red, white, and blue – outfits that almost certainly were purchased specifically for the day.  I will admit, I felt a vague sense of discomfort with this.  (I’ll also admit I feel this same sense of discomfort when I see kids dressed up in total support of a sports team or similar.)

I didn’t spend much time with that feeling of discomfort, mostly because I was all excited about the street fair and seeing fireworks.  But, this morning, one of the first things I read was this article, which put its finger firmly on the source of my discomfort.  I know it is a long article, so I’ll attempt to give you the gist.  “Can Patriotism be Compassionate?” essentially points out that patriotism can have the effect of creating an “us” and a “them” – and then excluding, demonizing, or dehumanizing “them.”  I particularly like one statement in the article, “We feel forced to choose between country and humanity.”  The article goes on to ask if it is necessary that patriotism force this choice.  It points out that as humans we are biologically predisposed to form groups (oxytocin, our “love hormone” is even involved!) and to both value loyalty to these groups and to attach morality to acting in the interests of the group.  That means that we instinctively act to protect those we identify with, even if it doesn’t quite make sense.  This is why I (and most humans) will stand up for my family, my friends, my school, my neighborhood, my political party, my country… without necessarily thinking critically about if I really agree.  This has advantages (hey, who doesn’t want someone to have their back!), but also disadvantages.  The article goes on to propose 4 solutions towards a more compassionate patriotism.  I like them all (1. Make love of humanity an explicit goal, 2. Teach that compassion and empathy are unlimited resources, 3. Extend self-compassion to America, and 4. Embrace authentic, not hubristic pride.), and I really do recommend you read the article.

Why did I feel uncomfortable when I noticed that everyone was dressed up in red, white, and blue?  Because I perceived others feeling pride in America as somehow saying “We’re the best” and somehow putting other countries down.  It particularly bothered me with children as I saw this as teaching children to have blind pride, instead of learning specific reasons to have pride – things America has done which have been good for humanity (same reason I dislike it for sports – in some ways it is cute when a kid just loves a certain football team, but it is much less cute when he/she also hates the rival team).  I guess what I’m saying is twofold:

1. I needed to change my perspective.  Many of those in red, white, and blue may have been feeling patriotic in an authentic, open way that left room for others to also be great.  My reaction was based on my perception, and I can change my perception.

2. It doesn’t hurt to have a reminder that patriotism, or other group pride, can result in exclusion and dehumanization.  There probably were people who were feeling that America is The Best, without thinking about why.  It is always good to stop and examine what we’re thinking, what we’re doing.

We’re all human beings.  We’re all doing our best.  Just because we were born in one country or another doesn’t mean that we’re better or worse than others.  Just because the color of our skin is slightly different, we speak a different language, we like a different sports team, we have a different religion, we went to a different high school, we prefer Team Edward to Team Jacob, or whatever other difference seems so important at the time, doesn’t mean we’re better or worse than others.  And those who are different than us aren’t any less human.  They’re just as able to be hurt as we are.  And wouldn’t you prefer if someone found out more about you instead of classifying you based on one characteristic?

Compassion can be revolutionary

Compassion can be revolutionary

So, it is ok, and even good, to be proud of our country and all the other groups we are a part of.  As long as we don’t use it as an opportunity to look down on others.  I think the key is Jeremy Adam Smith’s solution #2: empathy and compassion.  Let’s teach ourselves and our children to have compassion for others – to respect them for who they are.  To love those they know, and to love those they don’t know.  To give each other the benefit of the doubt.  Let’s teach that they won’t run out of compassion.  I think our Founding Fathers would agree that compassion can be a revolutionary idea – after all, they are the ones who said “all men are created equal”.  Not all Americans, not all Christians, not all atheists, not all Republicans, not all Democrats…  all human beings.  Be a founding person – be a revolutionary in empathy and compassion.  That would be an amazing legacy for America, and for humanity.

Exclusion and forgetting to be compassionate can happen at many levels in our lives.  We can get away from “us and them” by making a bigger us.  If you’re experiencing disruptions in your relationship or family, dealing with bullying, or just needing help changing your perspective, give us a call at Life Skills Resource Group in Orlando at 407-355-7378.  Our experienced Orlando counselors, psychologists, hypnotherapists, and life coaches are here to guide you and give you the support you need.

Hooray America!  Hooray humanity, too!  With revolutionary love, Krista