We’re in Philadelphia now. This trip is bringing back memories of our camping across the U.S. this past fall. All this strolling through American historical sites makes me ponder the then and now of my fellow citizens.
Ben Franklin was a printer, a scientist, an inventor, a diplomat, and a statesman and yet only had two years of formal schooling (and, as I like to remind my son, failed math). He was instrumental in shaping our country’s history for his entire life and, particularly, throughout the period where we gained our independence from Great Britain. He led with wit, humor, wisdom, generosity, and humility, much like another of history’s favorites, George Washington, who led our country, in one way or another, for a good 25 years. Thomas Paine was another leader who came forward with his Common Sense at a time when people needed to be galvanized into action, to see the problem in front of them and work together toward a solution.
Beyond their wisdom, beyond their leadership, these men had courage. If the revolution had gone differently and the cause ended up being lost, they would have been tried for treason, which would most likely have led to their executions and seizing of their assets. Each one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were traitors in Great Britain’s eyes. And yet they followed their cause, not for their best interests, but because it was the right thing to do. Because they believed in big words like freedom. And liberty. And justice. And, not only did they believe, but they risked it all.
What causes do we believe in today? What are we fighting for? Slavery is dead in the traditional sense, but what about economic slavery? The environment is at real risk of falling down around our ears–signs of it are everywhere. Education is completely ineffective at raising young leaders into society. Our resources are unfairly distributed. Children are born hopeless. Addictions rule our lives. People can’t seem to pay attention since distractions are everywhere. Wars are being fought. Greed leads governments. Fear, distrust, and ignorance lead the rest of us.
The scary thing is that people don’t seem to care anymore. About anything. We’ve gotten through a couple generations of hardships. Now people in this generation–and in the next one coming up–just don’t seem to care. We can’t be bothered to even vote when our forefathers fought desperately for our right to do so. We don’t ask critical questions about anything. Things like… why, in 2014, does abject poverty still exist? why are we paying for this new convention center? why are we still fighting a war? who is out for our best interests? who is actually running things? what kind of education are our kids receiving in school? is overdevelopment of our land what we’re after? where does our food come from? are any of us better off with the new technologies of the last ten years? is it fair? is it just? is it noble?
We don’t examine our lives to make sure we’re living them the way we want to, by our values. We don’t scrutinize our world to see how we can help make it a better place. We just nod our heads to another steaming, stinking helping of whatever the culture is currently dishing up. We’re over-entertained, over-competitive, individual-minded, shallow, over-comfortable followers of the status quo who have forgotten about anything larger than ourselves and have given up caring as though it were a disease and critical thinking as if it were poison. As long as we have our eats and our cable and our bills paid, we don’t dig any deeper. It’s the rat race… we just keep running mindlessly in our mazes until we get to the end.
I apologize for sounding brutal and judgmental. And I acknowledge this is not every person in our country. But, as I look around, it just seems like the numbers of people who act this way is increasing in startling proportion.
What’s it all for, though, and are we called to be people of greater integrity so that we can make better lives for ourselves and a better world to live in? Where are the true leaders… people who act in noble and selfless ways for the betterment of our country and mankind? Where is the modern-day Benjamin Franklin? Am I the only one asking these questions?
William Ellery Channing, a writer, religious leader, and philosopher of the 1800s, discussed in his lecture, “On the Elevation of the Laboring Class,” how regular people are becoming “stupefied” and “living under a cloud.” He looks for the “salvation of the modern world” through “the intellectual and moral elevation of the laboring class.”
Channing says: “Thought, intelligence, is the dignity of man, and no man is rising but in proportion as he is learning to think clearly and forcibly, or directing the energy of his mind to the acquisition of truth. Every man, in whatsoever condition, is to be a student. No matter what other vocation he may have, his chief vocation is to Think… Nature, Scripture, society, and life, present perpetual subjects for thought; and the man who collects, concentrates, employs his faculties on any of these subjects for the purpose of getting the truth, is so far a student, a thinker, a philosopher, and is rising to the dignity of a man. It is time that we should cease to limit to professed scholars the titles of thinkers, philosophers. Whoever seeks truth with an earnest mind, no matter when or how, belongs to the school of intellectual men.”
Also he said: “The universe in which we live was plainly meant by God to stir up such thought as has now been described. It is full of difficulty and mystery, and can only be penetrated and unravelled by the concentration of the intellect. Every object, even the simplest in nature and society, every event of life, is made up of various elements subtly bound together; so that, to understand anything, we must reduce it from its complexity to its parts and principles, and examine their relations to each other. Nor is this all. Every thing which enters the mind not only contains a depth of mystery in itself, but is connected by a thousand ties with all other things. The universe is not a disorderly, disconnected heap, but a beautiful whole, stamped throughout with unity, so as to be an image of the One Infinite Spirit. Nothing stands alone. All things are knit together, each existing for all and all for each. The humblest object has infinite connections.”
This is why we think. This is why it matters. Because we are not individual beings moving around for our own best interests. Instead, we are all intricately connected. And that is why we need to care about everything that happens, think critically about what is good and right and true, lead each other–like Ben Franklin and George Washington–for the well-being of all of us, and act in a way that benefits us all.