There is a palpable fear in America that our nation is approaching some cataclysm, that the current recession represents an irreversible decline, and that we are helpless to do much about it. Some think we are losing our edge to China, India, or Brazil; that they are going to beat us at the global political, economic game. We are a nation of has-beens, a country without vision or purpose, aging, without enough raw materials, money, and brainpower to remain on top.
This may be true. Or perhaps we should look at the fear itself and the collective self-absorption from which it springs. There is more to the United States than our common agreement to be a nation so that those within its bounds remain safe, well fed, and comfortable—important needs, but not inspiring.
The United States was founded on some very lofty ideals: the belief that the legitimacy of the state is created by the consent of its people, who are the source of political power; that our government’s power is limited, non-heredity, and subject to checks and balances; and that each and every person possesses certain inalienable rights.
Our greatness as a people is determined by the degree to which we live up to those ideals, not by our military superiority. Greatness is not a matter of having the largest gross national product or the biggest banks, the most widely-viewed movies, the best new technology, the most brilliant scientists, or the most able athletes. Of course we compete in those spheres, and it’s necessary to maintain our infrastructure and defend ourselves against attack. But none of that is, in and of itself, the measure or ultimate purpose of a nation. Being #1 is not the point. Having an empire is not the point. Winning is not the point. Being the greatest is not the point—in fact, it is wrongheaded to even think this way.
It is time we stopped worshiping at the altar of winning. It is time that we as individuals stopped grasping to be the richest, the cleverest, the most beautiful, healthy, or spiritual beings—striving to prove we are better, for fear that we will be left behind among the losers.
It is greatness to erase the boundaries in our minds that make winners and losers of us all. It is greatness to expand our hearts and make the effort to understand people unlike ourselves.
Greatness is building a nation that is just and fair to its entire people. Greatness is encouraging citizens to live up to the lofty ideals upon which this extraordinary experiment was founded. Greatness is respecting all people’s human rights. Greatness is caring for the most vulnerable among us.
We have always had it in us to be a great and righteous people, and at times we have even come close to emulating the very best of humanity. We have also failed miserably. But the greatness is there, within our grasp, if we are brave enough to see.