Like my favorite musicians, my heroes are an eclectic bunch. When trying to name them, Welles Crowther, Abraham Lincoln, and my grandfather come to mind. Despite the stark differences in their circumstances and social positions, these individuals are linked by a single commonality- they served a purpose greater than their selfish desires.
But in a time of selfies, microaggressions, and social turmoil, I fear that my generation has lost touch with the greater concept of what it means to be an American.
But many of my heroes I cannot name. This is due to the fact that these men and women number in the thousands and span myriad professions and epochs. Existing only in anonymity, they are those who placed service over self in the name of our distinct nation. From examples set by the soldiers of the American Revolution, to the Greatest Generation and the heroes of 9/11, we can see what makes America so exceptional.
As per the definition of “American Exceptionalism,” the United States is said to be a unique nation, distinct from its antecedents and unlike its contemporaries. And it is. We are different from other liberal democracies. We are different from other hegemonic nations. We are different from our allies. This cannot be attributed solely to our governmental structure or economic strength.
Rather, it is due to an undying commitment to American civil religion that lives in the hearts of those who defend the nation’s values at home and abroad. I was struck by an article I read this summer in the Philadelphia Inquirer on a similar topic. It noted that we must not view America as a rapacious empire. Instead, we must view it as a bastion of freedom which has altered the course of history so that people around the world may too experience this liberty.
When crises strike far away lands, they look to us for help. The United States is seemingly always involved in international affairs not only because of its resources, but also because of its rich history of justice and compassion. Among other things (both favorable and not), history has painted the United States as liberators and creators of opportunity. I like to believe that the American Dream exists for a reason.
But in a time of selfies, microaggressions, and social turmoil, I fear that my generation has lost touch with the greater concept of what it means to be an American. We focus too much on our differences, citing them as something that unifies us in a shared sense of heterogeneity. While this isn’t inherently a bad thing, we tend to overlook the common civil identity passed down by the generations of great men and women who came before us. I envision a nation in which all citizens come together under the umbrella of this common national identity, which represents more than a design on a passport. The United States of America represents freedom, equality, individualism, and grit.
So the next time you see a frat bro wearing a Make America Great Again hat, take a second to think about what it actually means. Think about what makes America so great. Think about how Welles Crowther and Pat Tillman lived their lives. When one places others above himself, he realizes what it means to live a life fulfilled. He realizes what it means to embody the raw American spirit in his daily affairs.
He realizes what it means to be free.