This Memorial Day 2023 we are confronted with the issue of patriotism. I say confronted because I don’t think patriotism is some simple concept. It requires work to adhere to the principles of freedom as espoused by our Founding Fathers. It requires actions that are consistent with those principles. So, one has to be confronted, often uncomfortably, with what we as a collective citizenry have done that justifies “devotion to and vigorous support of one’s country” and what we have done or have not done that reasonably questions our past actions and demands change so that we can continue to be devoted to and vigorously support our country. My concept of confrontation here is not a belligerent one but one of introspection seeking to improve the lives of others and the lives of our communities. Patriotism is not passive. Patriotism requires action.
Patriotism is not red, white and blue displays. Too many folks think that they can don the mantle of patriotism, waving a flag, wearing red, white and blue clothing, watching fireworks, or singing songs, without doing the hard work. Those actions alone do not address the steps needed to assure that the freedoms put forth over 250 years ago continue. Freedom is not really ours. It is a gift from a higher being and has been made holy by the lives of so many that have died in its name for the good of us all.
A representative fictional example is the movie Saving Private Ryan. As the army captain, Captain Miller (portrayed by Tom Hanks), is dying on the bridge, he leans over to Private Ryan (portrayed by Matt Damon) and whispers in a dying gasp — “earn this”. I must admit it took me awhile to really understand the full magnitude of this request at his death. He means that multiple lives were lost in an effort to find Private Ryan and to bring him home to his family (that had already lost their other sons in the war). He means that Private Ryan needs to honor his fallen comrades with a life of service toward others. He also means “earn this” in a much broader sense. Freedom is not free. We all have a responsibility to have an active role in our community. Thousands of soldiers died in World War II to save us from the tyranny of despotic regimes. He is saying that it is our responsibility as well as the responsibility of Private Ryan to live a life from this point forward to earn this sacrifice.
One second, Private Ryan is standing over the body of Captain Miller. The very next second, he morphs into the mature adult paying homage to Captain Miller’s gravestone at the Normandy battleground cemetery. He is there with his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. Private Ryan asks his wife if he has led a good life and I think by extension asks himself if he has “earned this” life. He is asking himself, “Did I honor Captain Miller and all of my fallen comrades by leading a life that helped others and contributed to my society?” “Did I earn this?” is the burning question in his mind.
Patriotism is not hollow words. Too many folks simply say that they are patriotic while performing acts that are counter to the basic tenets of our founding. If indeed as Thomas Jefferson has stated that “all men are equal,” then acts that run counter to that are not patriotic. Accusing political opponents of being unpatriotic just because you disagree, treating others with disdain and actively saying you hate them are acts that betray a civil society, and a civil society is what our Founders were searching for in the exodus from the King of England. Again, actions are what counts. If we are unwilling to seek the answers to past errors (maltreatment of Native Americans, enslavement of millions, horrific lynchings, purposeful civil rights abuses, mistreatment of immigrants, to start a long list), then we are not willing to move on. Too many currently see such an exercise as a blame game and want to avoid it. I see it as a journey toward reconciliation, the only way we can move forward as a unified society that seeks to glorify our successes and acknowledge our need for continuous improvement.
Abraham Lincoln had it right. In his second inaugural address in 1865, after over 620,000 Americans died in a brutal civil (actually a quite “uncivil”) war, President Lincoln offered the following conciliatory remarks, “with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; take care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and for his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” The nation had just been ripped apart and was barely coming back together. Lincoln so eloquently articulated the path forward—to live “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” This simple yet profound entreaty provides that path forward and requires our attempted adherence to be true patriots.
Patriotism is a mix of things. If patriotism requires actions, not displays, what are those actions? I am a firm believer in the following components, generously intermixed and sprinkled with love and compassion –
- TRUTH – truth is an accumulation of facts. Unfortunately, an incomplete group of facts can be twisted into untruths. We must always be truth-seekers and willing to listen to all of the facts, not just the convenient ones.
- TRUST – trust is earned. Trust is earned when people use their knowledge, their humanity and their empathy to engage with other citizens. As a physician, trust is vital to my patients and families. If I don’t use all of my professional knowledge, acknowledge my humanity and employ all of my empathy, I will not be trusted. Saying “trust me” is not sufficient. If one’s cumulative behaviors are not trustworthy, it is very hard to trust someone. They must earn our trust and that is an ongoing process.
- SCIENCE – science is an incredibly important component in today’s society. So many policy decisions (how to protect the environment and our planet, how to improve health, how to protect the public from life-threatening infection and many more) should be based on sound science. An incomplete application of science (just like an incomplete group of facts) is potentially dangerous and does not serve the public good, only those with a selfish agenda. We cannot allow science to be perverted.
- CIVILITY – civility is key to social interactions. Without civility, social discourse completely deteriorates. Name-calling serves no useful purpose and only serves to dehumanize and belittle our fellow citizens. Our ability to maintain civility needs constant attention. Treating each other as we want others to treat us is so important.
- DIVERSITY – diversity in America is a vital part of our society, now and at our founding. We must embrace our diversity. It is what makes us strong. And remember diversity means more than just ethnicity. It includes age, gender, sexual orientation and so much more. We represent the whole of humanity.
- FAITH – faith provides a moral compass. We are a nation of many faiths. When observed with integrity, faith allows us to love others and practice forgiveness in a manner that serves all.
Patriotism requires action. Displays of patriotism without the requisite actions are incomplete in my estimation. As we comingle truth, trust, science, civility, diversity and faith and remember the words of Jefferson (“all men are created equal”) and internalize the words of Lincoln (“with malice toward none, with charity for all”), we can begin to be true patriots and exhibit strong devotion and vigorous support of our country. That is what patriots do to honor all of those that came before us and to provide a solid foundation for generations to come.