America’s strength is its ability to reinvent itself.
The concept of reincarnation and rebirth exists in many cultures, from Christ leaving his tomb after his crucifixion to the Avatars of Vishnu (Krishna among them) and the discourses of Siddhartha Gautama and his followers detailing the various cycles of death and life. Some of these notions are rather abstract and poetic in nature, focusing on a continuation through substantial change—the earthly matter that once comprised your body gives life to an oak tree or a field of corn after your death. Other notions are more concrete. When you die, you’re literally reborn, perhaps in a different form, but with a strong connection to past lives. If you’ve accrued good karma (in Buddhist and Hindu traditions), you’ll re-embody in a nobler form, although if you’ve been naughty, you’ll get demoted.
While there are numerous doctrinal variations, the driving idea behind reincarnation is fairly simple. It’s a corporeal and spiritual voucher system based on merit. But even here, bastards get a second chance. You might get kicked down to the status of a lowly dung beetle because of bad behavior, but if you’re a really good dung beetle, you can rise to lofty heights again, including various paradise realms, and perhaps even achieve final release (moksha).
America, it turns out, is a land brimming over with reincarnation and rebirth. I say this not from a dogmatic, religious or overly philosophical standpoint, but rather from the very practical perspective of renewal and change. The people inhabiting the North American continent, from the original residents to invaders and settlers from Europe and Asia, have proven over the last few hundred years that they’re extremely capable of reinventing themselves. A former colony based largely on principles of agrarian democracy (although that didn’t last) won its independence, embraced the industrial revolution, sloughed off (albeit slowly) the scourge of slavery, fought and helped win two world wars, and then became the scholarly and technological beacon of the entire planet. Economic and social rebirth is as American as apple pie.
Even in individual American lives, people have the capacity to reinvent themselves in ways and on scales I haven’t seen elsewhere. A theoretical physicist decides he’s sick of his work, packs it in, and goes on to become the owner of a chic bistro, while a real estate retiree heads back to university for a degree in civil engineering—and a new role in which to contribute to her community. Second and third careers abound in this country, which I believe, when combined with good ol’ Yankee optimism, is an incredibly powerful trait of American life. Our youngsters might not have the best test scores on the planet (that can change as well, with a little hard work), but they sure aren’t lacking in confidence, or the desire to give something new a try.
The mantra on the far right of the political spectrum these days tends to run away from concepts of rebirth or social renewal of any kind. Instead, it runs along the lines of something like “America isn’t broken,” or “America: it just works.” While I do agree with these ideas, my basis for agreement differs drastically from the propagandist ideology I suspect fuels these types of hard-hitting slogans.
The idea on the entrenched right is that America is perfect, and we don’t need to change a damn thing (if you’re contemplating serious change, you might be un-American), but even a cursory glance at our short yet potent history will tell you that we’ve always been tinkering around with the formula that fills this land with unbridled potential and greatness. A conservative element in any society serves as an important counterweight to ideas that might be harmful or unnecessary in nature, yet when that conservative element is blinded by staunch doctrine that doesn’t operate upon facts grounded in reality (which fluctuates over time), it can become a dangerous and destructive force, instead of a champion of what works and needs to be preserved.
The perfection of America doesn’t rest within the refusal to acknowledge change and shifting social paradigms at all costs. Rather, this perfection comes from the ability of a society to be reborn from the challenges, missteps and tragedies we collectively endure, and thus learn and grow and emerge reinvigorated, like the fabled Phoenix of Greek legend, which rises from its own ashes and takes flight, again and again. Perfection is rarely attained in any society, but a wise populace never stops trying. Thank God for second chances.
Image credit: Pen Waggener