On Sunday, my neighborhood, festooned for days with patriotic banners and flags, had a nice Fourth of July party, cookout, and parade. The night before, we all enjoyed some pretty impressive fireworks. I even had the chance at one point to put on a spiffy traditional seersucker suit, white shirt, and red tie that I'd once bought to wear when I was to speak for a group of newly minted citizens at a well known outdoor naturalization ceremony held each Independence Day in a nearby picturesque coastal town. I capped off the look with a bright blue pocket square and white buck shoes, like a character in a Norman Rockwell scene. Americana thoroughly ruled.
We were surrounded all weekend by symbols celebrating our nation, our citizenship, and the value of patriotism. But throughout all the festivities, over the entire holiday break, I don't think I ever actually heard anyone utter the words 'citizenship' or 'patriotism,' and no one at the pool party was ruminating over the Declaration of Independence between hot dogs and burgers. While waiting for the parade, I did manage to have one small patriotic conversation with a neighbor who's on the local school board, about his concern for making their spending more effective. This impressive man, a retired Air Force officer, has brought his analytic bent for research and detail to his school board duties, and is making a real difference for the community.
I want to explain why I remember our informal chat as a "patriotic conversation."
We hardly seem to know any more what the word really means. Patriotism is of course most basically defined as, simply, "love of one's country." But we need to be clear about what that involves. Let me put it in the context of citizenship.
Most people seem to think that citizenship is just a fact and patriotism is a just a feeling - as if your citizenship is merely a legal detail about where you were born or where you've sought and received the requisite official status, and patriotism is a separate issue about your emotions, or feelings of loyalty, concern, and pride. But this very common view is importantly wrong. Citizenship is about a lot more than this. And so is patriotism.
Citizenship is about responsibility, and privilege. It's a moral matter, not just a legal fact, and as such, it's supposed to be a source of personal duty, involvement, and action. Patriotism is a deeply related matter of belief, feeling, attitude, and commitment coming together in support of the nation in which you're a citizen, and ultimately in contribution to the larger world in which you live.
Genuine patriotism isn't just a loyal state of mind or a warm inner feeling. It's not merely an attitude of approval and support. It's an inner commitment to do good where we are, to act for the benefit of our country, at any level available to us. It's meant to give rise to a pattern of action that delivers real value into the world. It's a positive involvement in the ongoing life of our nation, on however small or large a scale.
A full-bodied sense of patriotic affiliation, combined with a noble attitude of loyalty, doesn't have to involve any exclusivity of concern whatsoever, or any adversarial stance toward the people of other nations. It's a matter of tending our garden, wherever we live, and offering its beauty and bounty to all.
Proper patriotism operates at many levels, from the individual to the international, and at many stages in between. Individuals who are stronger, healthier, more balanced, spiritually developed, ethically concerned, well-educated, loving, and loyal make for stronger and better families and friendships. Better individuals, families, and friendships create together stronger communities; stronger communities make for a stronger nation; and appropriately stronger nations can then join together positively to create a better world. Each circle of influence supports the next one up or the next one out, whichever metaphor you prefer.
This is what I like to call "The Inner Circle Principle." Building good relations in our innermost circles of family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers can form the basis for better relations on a broader scale as well, moving outward from where we start.
The best patriotism is expansive - it's all about making a positive contribution to something greater than the self, and to something broader than the very smallest circle of society within which the self happens to live. This kind of patriotism seeks to contribute to the greater good of others both within and beyond the national boundaries of its first defining concern and commitment. It always looks toward broader good. It's inherently invitational. It isn't by nature bellicose, jingoistic, xenophobic, narrowly prejudiced, or stubbornly tribal - a view of "us against them." It's not a narrow and dangerous nationalism. It isn't a fortress mentality. It's not essentially suspicious, confrontational, or accusatory. Instead, true patriotism of the most enlightened and proper sort is based on the deepest values that ultimately can unite rather than divide. It's a readiness to put those values into action and celebrate their importance for a life of significance every day.
Patriotism is a matter of what we do, not just on the Fourth of July, or Memorial Day, or on any given Election Day. It's about how we vote with our time and attention every day. It's supposed to be about how we live, each day. The sort of enlightened citizen that I like to call "the everyday patriot" is simply a person who cares about making the little piece of the world around him a bit better than it was before, and contributing this small effort to the greater good of the nation and beyond.
Plato believed that for any republic to prosper, every citizen in the land must play a proper role. Aristotle later declared about the most basic political unit of his day - the polis, or city-state - that, "A city is a partnership for living well." I think his insight applies at every level of our lives in contemporary America. A neighborhood should be thought of as a partnership for living well, and so should a town, and so should a nation. We are all partners in a grand and vital enterprise. If we can come to understand that partnership more deeply, each of us can make the contribution we're here to make.
The everyday patriot is a person concerned with acts of service. We can serve our family members, friends, and neighbors in so many simple ways. The good citizen and true patriot is concerned about the mundane as well as the exalted. Little things matter, and little things add up.
We've been well served in countless ways by everyday patriots who came before us in the course of our national adventure. It's now our duty and great privilege to return the favor and act in service to those around us, and to others still yet to be born. So let's keep the real patriotic spirit alive, far after the leftover burgers and dogs are gone and the beer cans and champagne bottles have all been recycled.
Vote for the good of our nation with your time, attention, conversation, and energies, day to day. Keep up on the news, and get involved in your community. Encourage that member on the school board who is working to make things better. Notice the small needs and opportunities that exist on your street or in your town. Take action, do something good, and by your deeds as well as your words, you can live the patriotic spirit every day. This is one great reminder of the holiday we've just experienced, and the mindset it helps us to celebrate - along with the everyday patriots who live all around us.