One of the greatest fallacies in the history of the world has been to look to grand gestures of the state for political meaning. This was the mistake made in the early 20th century when totalitarian dictators – Nazi and Socialist – claimed that only their actions could restore the lives of their people and bring greatness to their nations. Their self-asserted delusion freed them from moral restraint and loosed a whirlwind of unthinkable violence and cruelty. The breaking of bodies in ceremonies of racial purity, authoritarianism and violence served in these regimes as means to unite people through force and fear.
A better vision points toward the true greatness of America, which lies not in the schemes of politicians, but in the capacity of the people to come together. Rather than the gestures of the state – movements from top down – the center of meaning in human lives is better understood in the ordinary acts that grace us with meaning every day – the movements from the ground up. A friend’s smile, a hug from a spouse, the kiss of child on a parent’s cheek.
The meaning in our lives comes from the multitude of kind acts that bind us together as families and friends and neighbors. In our best moments we know that these are the true sources of meaning in our lives, and the foundation of all political movements begin with how we treat one another. It is kindness that unites the nation and binds us together far more strongly than what the totalitarians could ever hope to achieve.
That strong bond of kindness among us has caused opponents of this nation to suffer badly when they underestimated Americans’ resolve. In times of national need, we have come together as a nation to build a collective future for ourselves and for our posterity.
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Those who view America from the outside, see only that we can wear our divisions publicly, even by being dismissive and insulting to each other. But, at the core, viewed from the inside, the strength of the nation has been its ability to come together – for neighbors to sacrifice for each other and for the liberties that we all hold dear.
A bitter election year is now over. It is time now that we must come together through the miracle of everyday kindness to bind up our differences. We need to find in those with whom we disagree our common humanity. Across boundaries of race, religion, privilege, education, and political affiliation, we need to see the legitimacy in the pain that others have suffered. We need to acknowledge the fears and weaknesses of those on the other side. And we need to put aside the failings we see in others in order to see them as neighbors upon whom our common future depends.
Despite our differences, there is a common humanity. Even in the lowest among us there is dignity and hope, because the immediate awareness of another person holds the potential for the beauty of kindness. In short, we need to find room in our hearts to care for one another. The greatness of America lies in our capacity to do just that.
Kevin Lee of Cary is an associate professor of law at Campbell University.