Every July 4, Americans celebrate the day America declared, not won, independence. Rather than selecting the day the war started in Lexington, the day it ended with the Treaties of Versailles, or the once-popular Evacuation Day, which commemorated the departure of the British from New York Harbor, we Americans choose to celebrate the day when we first boldly decided to chase the goal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This bold, progressive goal is the defining quality of America. And Americans should be proud to be part of it, not because in 1776 America reached that goal, but because Americans, today and as long as Old Glory flies, will be part of a quest to reach that goal and build the "perfect union."
The United States was not perfect when it began, and it is still far from perfect today. However, if one constantly writes off America because of its failings in the past or present, then one misses the general point: America was born a nation to perpetually move forward.
Americans have always been on the physical quest of "Manifest Destiny," which led us west and today leads us farther into the stars. And even more importantly, Americans across all generations have been on a "rights" quest, continually extending rights, progressing prosperity, and increasing free expression.
The declaration even states that we should always be on a quest to continually change things. The document reads, "It is the Right of the People ... to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
The message of Thomas Jefferson and company was more or less this: If things aren't good enough, make them better. America is meant to be an ever-progressive nation.
America has the goal to be better. But it is not just any goal to be a little better; it is a "stretch goal" to be the greatest. A stretch goal is an extremely high goal we set to motivate ourselves. When properly used, in an organizational setting, this type of goal has been shown to be incredibly motivating (though notably with some exceptions).
The American goal also acts not as a single goal but as a "goal ladder," such that each time we reach a new level of equality or propensity, we are not satisfied. Instead we look up the ladder and continue to strive for higher and higher levels.
For instance, just because women's rights have improved doesn't mean we should stop progressing women's rights. Instead, we need to keep climbing up that goal ladder and shatter that glass ceiling until men and women truly stand equally on that roof and breathe in the free air.
The fact that we are not satisfied with the quality of equality and prosperity in the United States is a testament to the resolve of Americans to never settle. It is a testament to the way many Americans resist the tempting urge to say the status quo is OK.
In the 1700s, colonialism was not completely terrible, but Americans declared that it wasn't good enough. The declaration stated that current conditions were not free enough. Just because things were OK for the American colonists didn't mean they were satisfied with them. So America declared independence and fought a war to level up the goal ladder.
The way the American ideal is both a "stretch goal" and a "goal ladder" is a testament to how the American ideal makes sense with the most successful aspects of humans' goal-striving capabilities. A wealth of research shows that people reach higher and higher levels of goals and happiness by following these two goal principles.
People are happiest when they "broaden and build" over and over again. That is when people A) broaden their goal strivings, and then B) build to make those goals a reality. After they achieve those goals they broaden once again. This leads to both higher levels of success and higher levels of personal satisfaction.
In summary, Americans should be proud of their boldness and at times even their naïveté to stretch for the impossible idea of a "more perfect union." Zack Synder, the director of Man of Steel, recently stated that Superman must be an American because of his naïveté and his unshakable devotion to hope and a better tomorrow. This proposes that what is core to Superman and America is this undying conviction to Superman's creed: "truth, justice, and the American way."
Americans should take pride in the boldness and hopeful stupidity of the Americans who in 1776 challenged the largest empire in the world. But Americans should celebrate more than just one war.
Americans should celebrate how this country has made good on many of the ideals set down in 1776 and how, across the generations, Americans have actively improved upon the execution of those ideals just as many of the founders would have wanted -- at least on an abstract, intellectual level.
And we should be proud of ourselves. We should be proud to chase the American ideal, and we should attempt when possible to actually chase it through our actions and words.
Like a Christian who chases the ideals of Jesus but knows he will never completely reach those ideals, or the atheist particle physicist who chases the underlying structure of subatomic particles but knows she will die before she knows it all, Americans should, and luckily often do, strive to reach those vague but wonderful ideals of equality, rights, and happiness.
The quest to reach these ideals will live on, and you, today and for your whole lifetime, have the great fortune to be part of that noble eternal quest.