I live in Costa Rica, the little Central American country that has been very busy lately reminding the world -- or at least, World Cup fans -- that anything is possible. Its stunning upsets of traditional soccer powerhouses to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in its history have been a lesson in confidence, preparation and grace under fire. However, these are just a few of many lessons I've learned from living here over the past ten years. One of the most important, and one I think about every Fourth of July, is how to be a better patriot.
Most Costa Ricans I know love their country very deeply. During this World Cup, that love has been filling the streets with dancing throngs and causing a joyous roar to echo off the mountains, but the love is always there, and for good reason: this nation without an army boasts remarkable achievements in human development, extraordinary biodiversity and natural beauty, just to name a few jewels in its crown. However, after living here for a few years, I realized I'd never heard a Costa Rican describe the country as "the best in the world." Prettiest? Sure. Beloved? All the time. But "greatest" or "best" would sound ridiculous on the lips of such pragmatic, humorous people who hardly ever take themselves too seriously.
At the same time, I started to notice how often we say it in the United States, where it's practically a requirement for politicians to throw these superlatives into every speech. Many people back home might say that I can't possibly compare a small country like Costa Rica to the United States of America. But that's precisely my point. You can't compare two countries -- or at least, you can't possibly choose a single country as the "best in the world," any more than you could choose a single person -- so why do we so often insist on doing just that? Why do we need to establish, again and again, our superiority over any other contender for a completely fictitious title?
These are only words, but words matter, and affect the way we interact with the world. Al Franken wrote that conservatives "love America like a four-year-old loves his mommy. Liberals love America like grown-ups." I'd argue that as long as this number-one mentality exists, there will be plenty of people across the political spectrum with an immature relationship with their homeland. Liberals like me sometimes love America like awkward teenagers who are discovering their parents' flaws and can't quite handle it -- if those parents have been known to, say, overthrow democratically elected leaders in other countries. We wince as our eyes are opened to the realities of history. We feel the burden of the "best country in the world" and a need to distance ourselves from it.
When we drop that pretense, it is possible to see our country for what it is, and to better understand both the bad and the good. I have come to marvel, more than ever before, in our unbelievable artistic and literary and athletic and intellectual contributions to the world; in the sheer vastness of our country; and above all, in the rich diversity that sets us apart from so many other nations. I have come to appreciate the way we speak our minds, our friendliness and goofiness, our willingness to donate and volunteer, our ingenuity, our God-given ability to take any food and make it less healthy. I miss my country. I criticize it. I admire it. I am it.
The United States will always be my parent, but I hope it's fair to say now that I am neither a four-year-old nor a teenager, but rather an adult child. As that child, I will sometimes be elated and sometimes disappointed by my parent's actions. As that child, I will sometimes apologize -- yes, apologize -- when my parent has done something I don't think is worthy of our family, because sometimes that's part of a child's responsibility. I will never fully understand the United States, in all its sins and strengths, because just as our parents are a part of us, my country is ingrained in my personality and speech, my mindset and voice -- but I can try to see her more clearly, to understand her flaws and celebrate her triumphs. And I will always be grateful for what she's given me.