American Greatness

Having lived abroad for over a decade, served in the United States Air Force for more than 20 years, and traveled throughout the United States and much of the world during my sixty plus years of life, one thing has become clear to me more than anything else – our country is an amalgamation of cultures, both domestic and international. And it is that amalgamation that makes this country truly great.

I could find many examples of why this is true. Instead, I’ll focus on one that I once drove past daily.  In the Tempelhof district of Berlin, Germany, near the central airport that was once a shining symbol of Nazi superiority, there is a truly gigantic round solid concrete structure that appears to have no apparent purpose. In fact, it was a test support pillar for a giant arch of triumph, three times the size of the one in Paris, that Hitler planned to build as part of the capital of his new thousand year Reich. Only seventy years later, that giant concrete monolith is still sinking slowly into the moist sandy soil there. Not surprisingly, the thousand year Reich sank just as inexorably. That is because Hitler’s gigantic monolithic structures were direct reflections of the monolithic and racially pure society he envisioned, both of whose foundations lacked resilience. The United States, on the other hand, is akin to a cable composed of many different strands, each of which lends not only its own strength to the cable but adds to its resilience as well. The Founders recognized this.  They didn’t just believe in the greatness of America. They believed in the greatness of Americans first of all.

The United States was founded as and remains a country of many different faiths, beliefs, ideologies, and political alliances. We hear so much about how the United States is the great melting pot of the world. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We all carry our individual cultures within us as the core part of who we are, what we believe, and how we see the world. We fought a civil war because of those cultural differences. We have experienced religious and other strife over the years as well and continue to see it in the current political discourse.  Anyone who is honest will admit that those differences still exist today. Yet the world continues to beat a path to our door as a place that offers opportunity and equality, even knowing they may undergo prejudice before finding some way to fit into our society. Still, I would propose that this is evidence for, and not against, the greatness of the United States.

I chafe at the term “American Exceptionalism,” words that somehow indicate we are inherently superior to any other nation in the world as a mere matter of fact. It trivializes over two centuries of the greatest and most difficult experiment in modern history and boils it down to a catch phrase. National greatness, as opposed to exceptionalism, isn’t defined in relation to anything external. It is defined in relation to our founding ideals, our charity towards others less fortunate, and our respect for our fellow citizens, regardless of their heritage or religion. In short, greatness is a measure of our societal integrity and evidenced by a bias toward inclusion versus exclusion.

Gandhi stated, “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.”  The United States, for all of its problems and sometimes troubling history, in my opinion has come closest to achieving this ideal than any nation to date. It was founded with the genuine belief it would become a great nation. And I believe, in most respects, it has constantly moved toward the Founders’ ideals. It remains each citizen’s responsibility to see that the march continues in the right direction.

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Reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall — I Was There

Twenty five years ago I was sitting in a facility on a hill in what was then West Berlin with my Air Force Intelligence colleagues trying desperately to discern what was going on in the government and populace on the other side of the Wall. It was actually fraught with danger, since no one really knew how the East Germans or the Soviets would respond if what had been peaceful protests by the citizens there turned violent.

It was so thrilling to be a part of history that none of us wanted to leave, even as shifts ended and days rolled into new days. And then the obstacle posed by the supposedly unbreachable Wall to the citizens of East Germany vanished, literally almost in an instant. Nothing will ever match that sense of amazement I saw in their eyes watching them come across into the West for the first time.

But in the months following that, reality set in. People lost their jobs, their state-provided homes, their sense of purpose. There were suicides, many more than were likely ever reported, especially within the ranks of those whose existence was directly linked with the communist party and its mechanisms. Parents were forced to tell their children that they had lied to them to keep them from saying the wrong things to the wrong people. The Stasi records were opened and husbands and wives found that their own spouses had been secretly reporting on their activities for years if not decades.

I said at the time it would take one or two generations for those wounds to heal. We’re not quite there yet, so though I marvel at the singular event of my adult and professional life and the fact that the Germans have made great strides toward true reunification, I can’t help but still hear the anguish and hopelessness in people’s voices once the glow was off the rose and the true magnitude of the collapse of a way of life had struck them full force.

I can’t help but believe that, even after 25 years, there aren’t some of them that mourn its loss. Not because they were diehard communist zealots, but because they were merely human beings trying to do the best for their families in the system in which they were compelled to live and survive, only to have it all vanish in an instant one day in November 1989. And I was there.

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Trauma – When The Dragons Come Calling

I never thought of myself as someone who’s gone through trauma. But sitting with my psychiatrist lately as we’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been suffering from free-floating anxiety interspersed with near panic attacks and chronic depression, I’ve come to see that I’ve been fooling myself.

There is a lot in my past that qualifies. An adolescence painful enough that I drank to unconsciousness to dull the pain and ran off to the Air Force as a means of escape. A divorce sparked by the discharge of a shotgun that washed 20 plus years down the drain in an instant and left me wondering what would have happened if I’d been home when things had gotten so out of hand. The job I had for 15 years where I was almost constantly and intimately involved with others who tried or succeeded to kill themselves and where a parade of ruined lives from mental illness was my constant companion. The tragic and unfair death of my little brother hit by a car driven by an 80-year old man who never should have been driving and never even saw fit to contact his family to apologize, all legal considerations aside. Financial ruin and a long, hard recovery. A now ex-son-in-law who chose methamphetamine over his family and threatened us all with revenge for what was solely his own doing, to the point we still are all armed most times and always have a loaded firearm at the ready at night.

I suppose I’m writing this because I know how hard I am on myself. I want to be the person I always thought I was, Chief Master Sergeant Rogers, the guy who just couldn’t wait to get another problem to solve. But I’ve come to recognize that one of the reasons I liked solving problems so much was that it was what I was always having to do in my life. I’d become quite good at it. Slay a dragon, look for another one, then slay that one and wait for the next one. Because I knew another dragon would be there. It always had been as far back as I remember.

Then, about two years ago, I just finally hit a point where the ancient reptilian part of my brain said, “Enough.” There was no more fight or flight response left. Just the flight part. Everything everywhere looked dangerous to me. Even the things I should have been joyful about. There was a lining to everything, but it definitely wasn’t silver. Instead it was black, or at least that’s what I thought. Just being alone was frightening, because I knew that somewhere out there the dragons were having a conference and deciding to all come at me at once. And all I could do was sit in place and shiver, waiting for the inevitable.

I’ve come a long way since the day that all hit me full force. I retired from the job that bombarded me with horrific experiences. I still work, but on things where I help people and from which I get intrinsic satisfaction. I’ve learned to share things and not keep things from my wife Ruth, by far the best therapist on the planet and an even better wife who has her own experiences in this area to draw on. I found a superb psychiatrist who truly works with me in finding solutions and allows me input into designing my own path out of the dragons’ lair. I reach out to my three incredible stepkids who are wise beyond their years and love me despite my quirks and inconsistencies. I recognize, despite fighting against it for years, that I need to take medications to help me master the things my own conscience can’t seem to handle by itself, at least until I find a way to make that happen without them. And I’ve learned from repeated experience that when I think that time has come, it’s probably still at least six months farther down the road. So I suck it up and take them anyway.

I know there are people out there saying, “Me? I don’t need help. I’ve got this.” But take it from someone who thought he “had it” for decades — When the dragons keep showing up, and especially when they bring a buddy or two or three or even more for backup, it’s time to take a hard look at yourself and see if you’re being honest with yourself. When slaying dragons becomes what you do all the time, something is wrong with the picture. We all need our lives to be relatively dragon free, aside from the occasional real ones we can’t avoid. If that’s not the case, seek help from a loved one or someone you trust. If there’s any way to do so, leave behind the things and people that are busy spawning dragons to come against you. And if you need to, which you almost certainly do if you get to that point, find a mental health professional or a helping professional of some kind you can trust. If they’re like me, they’ve seen your problem before and it won’t seem the least bit weird to them. They can help you find your way out of the cave, even if it’s you who’ll have to do the hard scrabble back toward the light at the cave exit.

Life is way, way better in the light. And the fewer dragons you see every day, the better things are. Trust me. I’ve been there.

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