Emotional Health

Celebrating Independence Day in a Divided Nation

The fourth of July is usually a lighthearted holiday. Fireworks and barbecues abound as leisurely three or four-day weekends allow us to unwind with family and friends. Rarely is there much discussion of the meaning of the occasion, for it has been clear: we celebrate freedom and independence. These two values, once universally agreed upon, bind us together as a nation.

This year, it no longer seems clear that we all agree upon what America stands for. A consensus about what it means to be a citizen and how those values are upheld is in question. The population is deeply divided about such fundamental issues as freedom of the press, inclusion, healthcare rights, voting rights, gun control and more.

While we celebrate, are we honoring the same country? While some people fear that the democratic process itself is threatened, others see us as more independent and stronger than ever. As families gather this week, many of these topics and their underlying ideas are as incendiary as the pyrotechnics we display to embrace them.

Values are the ideas and standards that sustain groups, families, and nations. Often they are implicit and largely unspoken. For centuries we have not wondered why people sought to emigrate here. The United States offered democracy, freedom, and opportunity for all. In reality this was just an ideal, and many minority groups have historically been denied access to equal opportunity. But this did not stop millions of immigrants from dreaming that they could overcome the obstacles in their way. Any many, many did, among them most of your forebears and mine.

And whatever the obstacles, here, things were better. The Irish and Jews who emigrated in the late 19th century did not find much welcome, but they were escaping pogroms and famine. Things were better here, and persecution, while not unknown, was not the law of the land. As The New York Times’ Paul Krugman writes, though we are powerful, “Our role in the world was always about more than money and guns. It was also about ideals: America stood for something larger than itself — for freedom, human rights and the rule of law as universal principles.”

These past few weeks, we have been stunned to see some of those ideals turned on their heads as migrant parents and children were separated at the border. This is not the country that these people risked everything to come to. This is not the country that our grandparents and great-grandparents arrived in.

How are values formed, and more important, how are they transformed or even lost? On the most basic level, it begins with character, a sense of guiding moral purpose. But even the strongest among us cannot survive without family and then community. As families, communities, and other support systems have weakened or been disbanded, what it means to be a person of character has become less clear, and less agreed upon.

How did admirable American change from a person of faith, charity, and humility into Gordon Gekko, the billionaire investor character in Wall Street who famously declared “Greed is good?”

Startling changes took place by the 1980s when that movie appeared and our brightest young people started to explicitly say their ambition in life was to be rich.

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