Yes, you are special. Yes, your rights have been violated. Yes, I hear your grievances. Yes, you most certainly are a victim who deserves recompense. Poor you.
Now, buck up, Bucko.
You also have responsibilities, much to be grateful for, and you owe your community, country, and the world more than your whining. And, that person seated next to you? They may even be more special than you are. Who knew?
The world is a mess, but this condition is also not special—not new. Human civilization has been more often a mess than not in its long history. Variables outside of our control—exogenous variables—will forever conspire to challenge our aspirations. What matters is how we deal with variables we can affect—endogenous variables—to turn chaos and threats into order and opportunities.
This is the lesson Ukrainians are teaching the world today. Against all odds, they knew that if they did not stand up for themselves and their country the life left over would not be worth living. Chaos and threats did not break them. They know that life as a Putin pawn means a bleak future living in a world like their Russian neighbors where the color spectrum of life ranges from gray to black and liberty is as rare as truth. Ukrainians prefer their bright blue and yellow, and while their flag may be stained by their own red blood, they are forty-four million souls who will fight for their home long after their buildings are felled and oligarchs lose their yachts.
There is not enough Botox in the world to fix what Senator Romney called Putin’s “feral eyes.” Putin’s destiny is assured as just another evil madman whose pasty reptilian skin will blister and fester under the blaze of damnation. Unlike many other political leaders, especially those in America, Putin is in many ways more forthright—more predictable. Yes, he deploys subterfuge, distraction, and deflection as a tactical effort at confusing and disorienting his foes, but his evil aims are pursued in an obvious and direct manner while barely feigning morality or decency.
Meanwhile, we Americans melt down if our barista puts butterscotch syrup in our latte instead of hazelnut. “I’ve been violated!” “Who will save me?” “Someone must pay!” “You will hear from my attorneys!” As children in every city in America go to bed hungry every night.
Performative activism on social media, which has become an acceptable yet meaningless expression of American character, must be replaced by redirecting our energy from rights to responsibilities; from grievances to gratitude; from condemnation to empowerment; from passivity to action. Posting a borrowed meme on Facebook while chewing your corn syrup-laced red licorice does not qualify you as a candidate for citizen of the year. We must stand up, speak up, and act in a manner that honors our past, provides stewardship of the present, and secures the future for those who follow. The challenges of our time are not insurmountable. We must simply decide to trade victimhood for victory.
We know the difference between right and wrong, or at least we did when we were in kindergarten; before we lost ourselves to the imperative of entitlement. In the age of abundance, we have been confused by a lack of consequences. Rather than raise our hands in service, we stretch them to grab our unfair share. We conjure enemies as anyone who doesn’t affirm our fragile egos or satisfy our limitless desires. How special we aren’t.
To be clear, Ukrainians are not superheroes; they are humans too. They are not better people than Americans, they just behave better. There is something about the prospect of losing everything—especially your freedom—that is both sobering and empowering. It stiffens the spine. In America, we are losing our democracy and the values of world stewardship—of exemplar exceptionalism—that should have made us leaders in the fight against climate change. We now stare at our dumbphones, while chewing our licorice, oblivious to our self-inflicted impending doom. As long as the next Amazon parcel arrives, what could possibly go wrong?
I write to you as one of those Americans. I don’t care for red licorice, but my dumbphone is always on and my Amazon shopping cart usually has something ready to “buy now.” However, I am also an historian who knows that American power was not won from the comfort of a couch. That the brilliance of our founding documents has more meaning than a Kardashian tweet. That those same documents gain their meaning not from their scrolled parchment; rather, from the behaviors of Americans who honor their aims with a duty of service.
Name one great American living today. Time is up. Stumped? Me too. Although it is true that greatness may not be obvious in real time—that it reveals itself after the fact—we should be able to name a number of prospects for the accolade. And yet, crickets. Leadership in our society is hard to find. Selflessness is a quaint notion hidden in the pages of books gathering dust in the library. Courage means more than surviving being unfollowed. Duty means putting down Wordle and getting to work.
There is greatness in every human being. Ukrainians are finding it the hard way—while staring down a murderous madman. It is time for Americans to put away their dumbphones and get off the couch. Self-pity will not change the course of history. We must renew our commitment of care for each other and the spaces we call home. We must re-engage in the spirit of perfectibility: to leave things better than we found them. We must, once again, endeavor to set the example for others to follow. This is the American story of our past when unity and determination led the world. It is time for the sequel.