Photo by Bigstock/PathDoc
When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s and early ‘70s, I believed that who I was, and what I did, mattered and that I had value as a person. Much of this was tied into being taught that America was the greatest nation on Earth—we Americans were exceptional and unlike anyone else in the world. There wasn’t a single challenge or problem that Americans couldn’t solve and heck, we were even able to land a man on the moon!
The messaging was clear: feel good that you’re an American and that you live in a country where you have value. That was always my identity first: American citizen; from that flowed any other identity.
And as for politics?
While the Democrats and Republicans fought over issues, one thing resonated: despite our differences and how we might disagree, we’re working for the “common good” to make America better as a nation. This included needing to self-sacrifice or delay gratification so that the larger community with all of its varied people might benefit. What a concept: the common good.
Fast forward to 2021’s contemporary messaging (and please excuse the broad-brush strokes that I’m about to use).
Today, the idea that every American matters or counts has been shaken to its core. If anything, the last four years has taught us that only certain of our countrymen are worthy. We’ve been vividly shown that many Americans view the world through the lenses of skin color and economic standing, and that we often make decisions that further our self-interests (and those of our family) over the interests of the collective humans who inhabit the United States.
Sacrifice to benefit others whom I don’t know, especially if they look or think differently than me or my group? Who are you kidding?
Even worse, the January 6th insurrection showed what happens when we’re led by someone who cares only about himself. For him and his followers—many of whom have risen to prominence because of their unabashed self-aggrandizement—the idea of sacrificing for or acting on behalf of the common good is totally foreign, something for “suckers” and “losers.”
Moreover, today many put their political party affiliation ahead of the label, “American.”
Tied into this is how social media barrages us with the message that unless you’re one of “Us”, there’s no place for you in our society. Only a certain group deserves the fruits of America—the stuff that “winners” are entitled to. As a sixty-four-year-old woman, I’ll likely be okay in the America that we find ourselves in. I don’t think that necessarily holds true for my daughters, ages thirty and twenty-eight. I fear they will find themselves in a country where sacrificing for the common good is thought of as antiquated as the rotary telephone.
At this point, let me pivot to a story of what happens when we refuse to adhere to the idea that collectively, we all belong and each of us must sacrifice to some degree for the betterment of society in general.
Shortly before the COVID lockdown, I spoke to eighty or so high school students in Red Wing, Minnesota. In the front row were the obvious queer kids; I saw purple and pink hair, piercings, and rainbow adornments in one way or another, sitting close. My talk was about how we “Other” people who aren’t like “Us,” and I offered ideas of how to bridge the divides that separate us. At one point in my presentation, I said, “I want all of you in this auditorium to know that you matter. You deserve to live your lives authentically and deserve to be whomever you want.”
After that, several front row students began to cry; some, needing to be comforted, put their heads on the shoulders of others. Later, the queer students asked to speak to me alone, sans educators or administrators. Surprisingly, their request was granted. A dozen young humans huddled around me to talk about things important to them. Before anything else, I asked, “What did I say to make you cry?”
One student with glasses and a black tee emblazoned with a funky rainbow, answered, “Ellie, no one had ever before told us that we mattered. You’re the first person to ever say that to us.”
My heart hurt for them immediately.
“I’m sorry that you’ve never heard those words before this,” I said. “That just stinks.”
This is the America we have today, where whole groups of humans—not just queer kids, but black, brown, and Indigenous people, along with many others—feel that they lack worth. It’s one of the many outcomes that result from placing individual identities in front of our collective identity.
Somehow, some way, we must fix this. Otherwise, the America that we know and hope for will cease to exist entirely.
Ellen (Ellie) Krug, the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change, speaks and trains on diversity and inclusion topics; visit www.elliekrug.com where you can also sign-up for her monthly 9000+ recipient e-newsletter, The Ripple. She welcomes your comments at [email protected].