It happens when the national anthem is played, when fireworks go off on the 4th of July, and when someone attacks the country. It may even happen with someone sings Yankee Doodle Dandy or some other soul-stirring song that wraps up all of the emotions and highs of belonging somewhere. It's that feeling that starts as a warmth in fingers and toes and lights up a big goofy smile, that feeling called patriotism, that feeling that makes you feel as if belonging somewhere is the greatest feeling on Earth.
It happens to me at all those times and whenever someone from my country excels at the Olympics, bringing home the gold, or even silver and bronze medals, and it is a blind emotion that arises from what I've been taught to feel, those moments in the blank slate of youth when pride and accomplishment lightened the dour and often sour faces of the adults around me. At first, I repeated the words I was taught of the Pledge of Allegiance and sang the Star-Spangled Banner. Slowly and surely those words gained strength as I learned their origins and what had happened to make them important, not only to a classroom full of tender and impressionable youngsters, but to me. The hardships, deaths, sacrifices, and triumphs that happened in the past took on meaning until the words and music thrilled me and filled me with pride and warmth, and my smile grew broader and wider and became more real than anything -- except maybe Christmas lights and songs, and the promise of brightly wrapped packages with tags that had my name on them. Call it patriotism or simply pride in belonging, but it was as real then as it is now when I hear the stirring chords and words of America the Beautiful, The Star-spangled Banner, and Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Patriotism is not just the feeling that warms me, but also what I was taught -- to believe in the strength and majesty and justice of the country where I was born. I obviously feel no such ties to the state where I was born -- Ohio -- and yet there are moments when I fiercely defend all that Ohio means to me: the Buckeyes, OSU, Woody Hayes, the Lincoln Levecque Tower, the rolling hills, Buckeye Lake, and all the famous people (presidents included) that are part and parcel of the place where I was born.
Patriotism is about belonging somewhere, a place where people grew up the same way I did, hold the same values dearly, and speak the same language, thrill to the same songs, and whose roots go deep into the soul that nourished the men and women who created, fought, and died so that I could live here.
Patriotism is also blind, as blind as the love a child has for a parent who can be abusive or loving or uncaring, but from whom that child sprang.
Patriotism can be as boundless and total as first love, as bright and untarnished as a first car, and a word that stirs even the most contentious of people to band together and fight against a common foe. Patriotism can also be as blind as fighting for someone you hold dear just because they are family or your best friend, battling against whoever or whatever attempts to come between you, and as furiously defended as any blind loyalty, but without patriotism who would we get to fight for us, to die for us, to uphold and cherish those ideals we all believe in, even when we say we don't?
Patriotism is a mixed bag of emotions and actions that serve to bind us closer together, even when we don't agree, as the world found when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and terrorists took down the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon, and the people that died to make sure the last terrorist controlled plane did not take down that shining white symbol of our strength and faith: the White House. Americans went mad together in the name of patriotism -- and vengeance -- and we are just now waking from that bloody dream. How else could so many people from so many cultures, religions, and walks of life be so at one without patriotism?
It is more difficult to hold onto the dream of America, to thrill to the soaring emotions that stirred in our breasts a few years ago, and to stand up and proclaim: I am an American. It is difficult because the men and women who lead us from the marble halls in Washington, D.C. have failed us, have forgotten which side they are on, and have eschewed patriotism for blind greed and the power that comes from the positions they hold in our name, in the common Americans' names who put their faith and trust in these leaders' abilities to do the right thing, to guide our ship of state through calm and often treacherous waters. Their fealty is to themselves and to wealth and power. They no longer share the same dreams and ideals the rest of Americans' share. They belong to themselves and to the people who have bought and paid for them. They no longer belong to the people who voted them power and justice to wield for us. In them, patriotism is a word and likely few of them thrill to the words or the music that still burn warm and bright within the rest of us. Has it not ever been so among the power brokers?
Patriotism is a dream, like safety and protection and truth. Grind the universe down and put it through the finest sieve and you will find not a molecule or atom called patriotism remains, and yet we still believe in security, safety, and belonging to something greater than ourselves.
Whatever the dream was, I wish it were so again, that we all burned with the same fire and our hearts kindled to the same words and music once again, but we have grown up and the adult world is often a bitter and narrow place where a child's dreams of belonging to something better and stronger that lasts eternally have died. We are no longer blind; we have awakened and the world is a much more complex and sadder place.
Yet, somewhere deep inside is the child we were with the uncomplicated faith that magic exists, that faeries, elves, leprechauns, and all manner of magical beasts and folk still wait to be discovered, and hope, faith, trust, and truth are more than just words. In that world, patriotism reigns, often like Tinkerbell, fading and hopeful, waiting for someone and everyone to clap their hands and believe. Where children still dream, that is where patriotism lives.
Patriotism is a dream.