Stepping Outside

I was born in the year 1951.

Besides making me INCREDIBLY old, it also means there were two bedrock truths I clung to with the ferocity of a baby opossum clinging to its mother’s back as she swims across a swollen creek:

  • My country (the good ol’ USA) is always right.
  • My country is also intrinsically BETTER than all other countries.

I think I came upon these views honestly enough.

My birth year was not that far removed from the victorious end of World War II. It was a time when the sweet perfume of VJ Day and VE Day still hung in the air. Evil had been defeated by Good and it was mostly America’s doing. It was a time when the evidence for our exceptionalism was abundant, and we were always up for taking just one more victory lap whenever we could.

That heady time, however, gave way to the extreme racial violence of the Civil Rights era. It was the time of poll taxes and literacy tests, the torture and murder of Emmett Till, the bombing of black churches, Bull Connor and his fire hoses, the flaming Greyhound busses of the Freedom Riders, and Viola Liuzzo. 

This era was a gigantic black eye for our country, and a full frontal assault on our identity as “land of the free, home of the brave.”

But somehow, I didn’t see it that way. For me it was more like being part of a wonderful family… with the notable exception of that embarrassing uncle we all agree is crazy and try to avoid talking about. 

So, despite some serious evidence to the contrary, the myth of American exceptionalism – for me and for many – continued to reign supreme.

I can’t say for sure how long that belief lingered in my psyche. I can, however, tell you how it began to crumble and fall apart. 

Travel. And reading.

Travel – the thing I am doing right now as we speak – brings a person nose-to-nose with the realities of places other than the one you grew up in. Travel shows you a place’s uniquenesses, its exceptionalisms, its blessings, and its warts. When you visit another country, you cannot help but notice the pride they take in their own history and people. It begins to feel arrogant and wrong to keep on saying, WE are better you are! WEare RIGHT!”

As Mark Twain is purported to have once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

As odd and counterintuitive as this phenomenon might be, it seems I always return from travel with a greater appreciation for the wonders of my homeland. 

Reading is the other thing that can be a deadly poison to chauvinism. Just like travel, reading broadens horizons and opens eyes. It tests hypotheses. It questions premises. It uproots. 

Sometimes it whispers, other times it shouts, but no matter how it speaks, reading invariably challenges truths we have held to be self-evident. I still count the courses I most resisted taking in seminary as the courses I learned the most from.

It is by reading, for example, that I learned that most of America’s current economic supremacy was built on the bowed backs of black and brown enslaved people. It is by reading that I learned about the disastrous effects of specialized farming, child labor practices, artificial intelligence, Japanese internment camps in America, the French revolution, the Bolshevik revolution, the causes and outcomes of World War I and World War II, female circumcision in Africa, the history of aviation, and countless other topics that have shaped the way I see the world.

Yes, I have acquired some knowledge over the years… though probably not enough at this point to even CONSIDER auditioning for Jeopardy! However, the more knowledge I acquire, the more I realize I have yet to acquire. Instead of making me proud of my learning, reading and learning makes me humble about what I don’t yet know. 

The problem is, most Americans don’t travel (a 2019 Department of Commerce survey concluded that 64 percent of U.S. Americans have never traveled to another country… including Canada and/or Mexico.)

Most Americans also don’t read. A survey by the group Test Prep Insight found that, at the end of 2022, the last full year of the pandemic, 48.5 percent of Americans had read ZERO books during the past year. 

As a result of this non-reading, non-traveling behavior, many Americans continue to swagger into the public forum braying, “WE are right! We are the BEST!” without any evidence to support their claim. And as wise old King Solomon once told us, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” (Proverbs 11:2, NRSVU).

I beseech my fellow countrypersons: Please travel. Please read. Please realize how much the world has changed since 1951. And please believe you and I can learn a LOT from people who don’t resemble us at all.

Abundant blessings;

8 Responses to “Stepping Outside”

  1. 1 ephesians413
    May 13, 2023 at 11:20 pm

    True. I love to require my students to watch a little 6 minute video by Daniel Ally: “Five reasons why you should read books.” He makes it very attractive to young people to read more. People, whether young or old, who don’t read, don’t have many ideas.

  2. May 14, 2023 at 7:51 am

    My dear late father, an Englishman, chose to wed a French lass (my mum), and, later, was chair of a European twinning association for many years. And as one of my great-grandmothers was Irish, I’m more French than English. I’ve always felt an affinity with those born elsewhere; it’s in my blood.

    And I’ve always admired the way cats refuse to respect fences. As for national boundaries: those are just arbitrary anachronisms, handed down through generations of warfare, chaos, and strife. You can’t see them from space.

    I became a voracious reader as a youth, and am fortunate to have been able to travel to several distant† lands – though I’ve stayed put here in Blighty for the best part of two decades, having vowed never to fly again until flight is redesigned to do less environmental harm. Nevertheless, I’ve long believed that travel should be a standard part of any education curriculum. In my experience, it really does open the mind to new horizons, and new frlendships.

    † I almost used the word ‘foreign’ here, but changed it as I think that’s such an unfortunate word to use to describe other lands, and other folks. Like its synonym ‘alien’, it evokes (in me at least) a sense of ‘otherness’. And if someone’s an ‘other’, then they’re somehow less huggable – and, sadly, more hittable.

    • May 14, 2023 at 2:51 pm

      Thanks for chiming in! This is a gross generalization, but I have always felt that Europeans are always less border conscious and more “global” (whatever that means) than Americans. I guess Brexit showed us that the enforced national chumminess was a little too much for the majority of your countrymen though. You are clearly an example of the kind of well-traveled and well-read person more of us need to aspire to be. Your reply reminds me of a podcast I heard recently on some very promising developments in the world of hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft… although it still seems to be a long, long way down the road.

  3. May 16, 2023 at 7:39 pm

    I couldn’t agree more!! Thank you for posting this perspective! Travel and reading are critical to understanding our connections in the world and humanity.

  4. May 17, 2023 at 1:47 am

    Wonderful perspective! I, too, was born in 1951 and was spoon-fed some of the same things as you were about what a ‘great’ country the U.S. was. I started questioning a bit early in life, like around the age of 5, and might have been satisfied with the answers I got, but it seemed nobody had answers to my questions. While I don’t travel now, I did go to France for a week and loved the country so much I didn’t want to leave! But I do read … avidly … and I’m appalled by the recent trend of trying to whitewash the history of this country. No country is without some shame in its past, but if we hide it, we are destined to repeat it, which is what I’m seeing in the U.S. today. This was a great post and I arrived here thanks to our mutual friend PeNdantry! Thanks to you both!

  5. May 17, 2023 at 2:36 pm

    In 1972, I travelled via Eurail and also hitchhiked throughout Europe — including a walk through East Berlin. Witnessed a still Goosestepping band of East German soldiers.
    A mind-defining 18 months. 1971 to 1973.

    Good to meet kindred souls here.
    Shukran Jazeelan!

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