A nation defines itself through ideas. Every single day, ordinary Americans hurry to work and back, prepare meals and relax, rarely pausing to think about the ideas that they live by. A nation’s birthday is a good time to reflect on that collective national vision that illuminates ordinary living.
The first phrase to describe American culture that entered my vocabulary was one I heard in graduate school: “Work Hard, Play Hard.” With journal articles strewn around them, students took up every library workstation on weekdays; come Friday night that very library was deserted with sounds of student merriment filtering in from restaurants and dorm rooms as they rested after toiling all week.
Then, came the vision of America as an upwardly mobile society where anything was possible. The “pull yourself by the bootstraps” attitude that powered the creation of this nation was repeated often to serve as a model of behavior to all that lived here. Guiding all this toil was the pursuit of the American Dream—that hallowed ideal where dreams could be realized regardless of social class; where every individual yearned to be included into a collective conclave of achievement and lasting betterment.
Of all that I have admired in American culture, two qualities strike a particular resonance within me: reinvention and philanthropy.
Reinvention as it applies to career shifts fascinates me. Marci Alboher in a piece in The New York Times uses the term “slash careers” to describe this chameleon-like quality to one’s career.
Lawyer/journalist could well become Ex-Lawyer/Freelancer/Community College Lecturer and that could further become Writer/Community College Lecturer/Change Consultant. The slashes can change and the words on either side change in a continuum; a change this society supports wholeheartedly. Walking into a job interview to say with conviction that you are there looking for change is not frowned upon; in fact, it might well give you cache. Years earlier I toiled alongside Mark, my gardener who was once a police officer. In his youth, the allure of wearing a uniform drew him to a regimented life in the police department. On patrol rides when he found that he yearned to work outdoors all day, he switched careers and became an avid gardener who started and ended his day with a smile. The smaller paycheck didn’t matter—what mattered was his personal sense of satisfaction of how he had spent his workday.
The other quality I admire is the American way of giving. “The scope of private philanthropy is unparalleled anywhere on Earth,” says Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby. In 2014 Americans gave $360 billion dollars, a staggering record. Private foundations and corporate giving account only for 19% of all giving. The rest comes from private individuals. This statistic does not include the 8 billion hours of community service done by 63 million American volunteers. From local history museums to libraries to state parks and hospitals, Americans give of their time in ways that are truly humbling.
When I search for a visual to describe this nation’s spirit, my mind conjures up an image of a quilt. The creation of each stitch in a quilt takes time and deliberation akin to the painstaking job of creating a nation-state. Given the bold fabrics that define Indian textiledom, each one of us can make a daring stitch in the American quilt by stitching our very own quintissentially American story.
That American story will surely include fiery independence, hard work, personal reinvention, the giving of time and money, and above all, the pursuit of a lofty goal.
Thomas Jefferson’s promise to the nation as outlined in the phrase—the pursuit of happiness—defines this country and its people in a way that is profound and definitive. It carries with it an image of striving and hope. Happy July!