An American Tune

It is peak season for US politics. We non-Americans watch entranced and disgusted by the search for shadows that are bound to lurk in the hearts of Presidential opponents, as they do in each of us. Hubris takes no prisoners as it fractures into partisan flags flying from solitary peaks. There must be no spaces in between, no middle ground in American democracy today. Being forsaken isn’t pretty.

The early settlers weren’t blown here on gusts of hope. They were more pragmatic and gritty. Cradled in the riches of North America their nightmares gave way with opportunity, cooperation, and hard work. You could be unrealistic in America and still make something of your dreams. Somehow over two centuries such bounty got confused with hope and hope got confused with destiny.

You can’t be forever blest. Such certainty is bound to scorch, first in the lengthening shadow you cast and eventually in the heart that holds it. This is really what’s on display in American politics today – one last speculation on hope. But that will pass. Hope has evaporated from other peoples. From them Americans will discover more fundamental aspects of their character – courage, love, humility, resilience, reciprocity, trust, perseverance and yes, faith.

Hope isn’t audacious. Courage is. Without it no other virtue is possible. It takes courage to confront your contradictions and wrong doings; to love opponents; to be curious about strangers; and to carry on even when driven to your knees.

Emily Dickinson used a bird metaphor to define hope as “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” But redemption does not have wings. Feathers are too light for the work ahead. The outlook may be bleak but many Americans are awakening to life in the spaces in between. They are not waiting as Emily Dickinson did for hope “to sing the tune.” They are rediscovering their faith in each other. These include truth-tellers like Angeles Arrien who nourishes with ancient wisdom, John McKnight and Peter Block who illuminate with neighbourly love and Bill Drayton who inspires a marriage between creativity and empathy.

Americans have long working days ahead. Those of us who love them should remind them they are not alone.

Note: this piece was inspired by Paul Simon’s 1973 song An American Tune, which was in turn inspired by a JS Bach melody.

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