I have always loved the 4th of July. It feels like the epitome of summer with the smell of BBQ and long hours spent in the sun, lounge chairs and watermelon, hooded sweatshirts and fireworks. Aww, I think in fact it may be my favorite holiday, maybe because it’s not quite as commercialized as other holidays. Ok, well…at least its not as commercialized for quite as long as other holidays. It’s one of the only holidays that doesn’t seem to center on fancy dinners at long tables, where relatives gather and comment how especially good the dead, upside down bird tastes this year.
Even when I was a little kid I remember sitting excitedly on the curb at our neighborhood block parties watching my dad light fireworks and being mesmerized by the explosion of light and color and pure mystery. (yes, this was before having your own fire works show was deemed illegal) There was just something special, almost magical about the 4th of July. And even though some of that childlike wonder and glee wears off with age, I still think there is something about the 4th that just makes me happy.
And this year was no different. I had a wonderful 4th of July. Beach time with friends. BBQs. Good food. Fireworks. But this year I was also struck by the tension of celebrating and appreciating our country, while also acknowledging some of the failures and embarrassments of the very nation I love. We seem to be plagued with, what Barbara Kingsolver describes as prideful wastefulness. She begs the question, “What other name can there be for our noisy, celebratory appetite for unnecessary things and our vast carelessness regarding their manufacture and disposal?” And it’s not just that we live in a consumer culture (that I too, buy into) it’s that sometimes we don’t seem to connect the dots: the food that I eat, and the store who hires the workers, and the rain runoff that drains into the ocean and the oil used to fuel my car and the refugees in Afghanistan…they are all connected. As a nation we cannot continue to use resources at the rate we do and simply pretend that we’re entitled to an unlimited amount. At some point I think we need to learn to live within our means.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not live by some ideal super-conscious lifestyle checklist that monitors where I buy my food and how the workers are treated and if they land is preserved and replenished. I wish I lived a more sustainable lifestyle, rooted in simplicity and contentment, rather than selfishness and entitlement. The truth is I am attached to convenience like the rest of us. I drive my car when my bike or two legs would work just as well. I’ll buy a new shirt because it’s a “good deal” regardless of where it was made. Sometimes I waste food and let the run water too long. And all too often I choose to ignore the injustices and inequalities that are apparent both in my local community and in the world at large. I recently read that the United Nations estimates that $13 billion in foreign aide would provide health and nutrition to EVERYONE in the world. And you know what? Americans and Europeans collectively spend $17 billion a year on pet food.
Sometimes I am humbled and slightly frightened that my generation has more access to information than ever before, and not just information, but with one click of a mouse or a nifty iphone app we can Google search any word or phrase or language. We can see pictures and videos and live satellite images from parts of the world that only National Geographic photographers used to be able to go. We have access to news broadcasts and articles and blogs from just about every nation. And yet I wonder, do we live any differently? Is having access to this much information helpful or does it only leave us numb to the real human stories and people behind the facts that we can so easily search? Does it change the way I live or at least challenge the way I make decisions?
The day after 4th of July I walked along the beach by the Santa Barbara harbor. Every Sunday a group of volunteers place crosses in the sand for each solider who has been tragically killed in Iraq. This makeshift memorial is known as Arlington West and it’s easy to simply walk or drive by and not even notice it, but this Sunday I stopped. My life is comfortable and convenient and I do not often think of the 4,323 America men and women who have lost their lives. Nor do I pause to remember the countless numbers of Iraqi men, women and children who have also died and the thousands more who are still alive, yet mourning the loss of a loved one. Loss is loss. I remember walking through the streets of Sarajevo during college and hearing an aide worker who lived through the Balkan Conflict quote “War is the lesser of two evils. No one wins in war.” A few months ago I saw a documentary called the Road to Fallujah as part of the Santa Barbara Film Festival. It was equally challenging and eye-opening to get a first hand glimpse of the horrors of war in Iraq. It is all too easy to sit behind the comfort of my home computer and ignore the reality of what is happening in our world.
I don’t completely understand the ins and outs of foreign affairs and I am the first to admit that the situation in Iraq and now Afghanistan and Iran is terribly complicated, but I don’t want to celebrate a nation that seems to be more concerned about it’s corporate profit and mini oil fields than limiting fossil fuel emissions and creating fair and equitable treatment for workers. I want to celebrate a nation that is generous with our resources and our aide; a country that comes to see the connectedness between people and the land with which we live on.
In her book, Small Wonders, Kingsolver states, “Real generosity involves not only making a gift, but also giving up something.” If living generously is a goal I have for my country, I realize it probably starts with me and with you. It starts small. It starts with every day, average people choosing to live differently, choosing to live differently and in the process giving up something.