PRAIRIE DU CHIEN — This is a difficult time to have faith in America. I watched with the rest of you in shock as domestic insurrectionists breached our nation’s Capitol last month. As if witnessing a horrific car accident, I could not avert my eyes from the mayhem. I have subsequently watched as the brief political resolve displayed the night of Jan. 6 disintegrated into the usual party-line hostility.
My friends ask if what we are experiencing is worse than the 1960s, when our nation’s youth were dying in Vietnam, when Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers fell to assassination, and when our cities erupted in violence during the civil rights movement. Episodes of social upheaval defy comparison, but each destroys our sense of social cohesion.
Yet from that tumultuous decade came King’s “I have a dream” speech that implored us to imagine our better selves. And we achieved President John F. Kennedy’s mandate that “We choose to go to the moon,” which endowed us with a national self-determination.
Today, King’s dream remains a work in progress, bolstered by the election of Black Americans to the nation’s two highest offices. Space exploration also has spawned a private sector economy that will continue to explore the heavens. King’s and Kennedy’s words still resonate today and lead us toward what we aspire to become.
By contrast, divisive politics, “entertainment” news and social media lead us to dissention. As if we had tossed a chew toy between two dogs, an endless tug of rhetoric ensues.
Our destiny will not suddenly materialize from impassive hope or rhetorical pleas for unity. We actively seek what we become.
Then President-elect Joe Biden said the Jan. 6 events “Do not represent who we are.” Mike McCabe, executive director of Our Wisconsin Revolution, “begs to differ,” saying, “This is where we’re at as a country right now.” We struggle to find a balance between optimism and realism as the debate rages over who we are.
What we become need not be tethered to what we became. A nation never ceases becoming, any more than a river ceases flowing. Even a frozen river continues to move below the surface.
At 67 years of age, I am still becoming. I continue to learn. And despite my suspect memory, I continue to regret some of my past. Yet I will not be defined by my past alone.
At 243 years old, our nation is still becoming. We continue to explore our horizons. We regret our forays into chaos. Yet we will not be defined by or confined to those destructive diversions. We are “a nation that isn’t broken / but simply unfinished,” said Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate, at Biden’s inauguration.
I come from rural America, a part of the country painted red by political pundits. We still open doors for one another and let people with fewer groceries to the front of the line. People smile at me with their eyes, even though their mouths are covered in masks. They stop on their walks in the park to greet me and Fargo and offer their dog lore as conversation. My aforementioned friends come from a wide swath of political persuasions, yet we still find reason to laugh together.
Is this sense of community universal? No. People still look down at their shoes when passing, afraid to reveal the hurt or anger behind their eyes. People cut us off on the highway, in a hurry to some thoughtless destination. People can be mean-spirited as they try to shed themselves of the meanness accumulated in a lifetime. And yes, some people storm our nation’s Capitol.
They show us daily what we don’t want to become.
And so we can choose. Expressing our self-determination, we can choose between community and spite. We can choose to build a wall of decency and compassion that no mob can penetrate. No one — no politician, commentator or instigator — can choose for us.
We can move underneath this river frozen in anger. And we can have faith in America, which begins with having faith in one another.
Frydenlund lives in Prairie du Chien: firstname.lastname@example.org.