A few years ago, after 9-11, when everyone was debating patriotism and what it is, I wrote a little essay called “The Everyday Patriot: How to be a Great American Now” and privately printed it for friends and clients. One of the main themes was that patriotism isn’t about nationalism or xenophobic jingoism. It’s not an us-versus-them mentality. It’s not essentially a polarized form of thinking and feeling at all. Not at its best. It’s rather a matter of cultivating the garden we’re in, for the greater good of all. And it’s about voting every day—with our time, attention, energy, and thoughtfulness. That allows us to vote better when the ballot box is available.
Citizenship isn’t the remote, airy abstraction that it’s come to be for most of us. It’s an essentially participatory role. We’re not supposed to be on the sidelines, appraising those on the field and either cheering in support or booing. We’re supposed to be on the field of action ourselves, engaged in the big game.
Consider what’s going on in Charlotte right now. Patriots don’t riot against their neighbors. Engaged citizens find a way to make their voices heard without ripping up their own gardens and destroying their communities. But we’ve forgotten our civic duties. If we think of government at all, it’s either as a big drain on our resources, almost a necessary evil, or else an institution we can call on for help. But in a democracy, we all are the government at its most fundamental level. That’s the most basic truth of self-government. That’s why I pick up litter when I’m out on a walk. The little things add up. It’s also why I write a representative when I think action needs to be taken. And I don’t do nearly enough. Most of us don’t. We need to cultivate the garden more.
So today, perhaps let yourself dwell on that image. Our garden needs tending. Just remember the old adage: Great gardeners live in beautiful places because they make them so. And go vote every day.