What We Need to Give and Give Up for our Country

In a New York Times op-ed piece, No Laughing Matter, Thomas Friedman proposes what each candidate should say – the tough things they would do as president and thus the tough things we as citizens would  need to do to really change America.  You can read his article to see the tough things he would like to hear McCain and Obama say.

I want to focus on his concluding comments: 

“George W. Bush never once – not one time – challenged Americans to do anything hard, let alone great. The next president is not going to have that luxury. He will have to ask everyone to do something hard – and I want to know now who is up to that task.”

His comment touches upon something that I think has become true in America.  Politicians make promises in order to get elected.  Rarely do they discuss how their promises will be paid for.  And rarely any more are they willing to promote tough choices – we can in fact solve some of our problems, but it will exact a price from us and that is what brings every possible solution to a screeching halt.

Instead politicians cater to the me-first, entitlement thinking which is so much a part of our culture.  We believe we should have everything we want and not have to pay for it.  We want a huge military, social security, universal health insurance, job security, big houses, unlimited credit, massive debt, vacations, endless and cheap energy, superior education, and we want it to be free – or at least to be paid for by someone else as we don’t want to have to pay (especially not taxes) for any of these things.  And if anything goes wrong – flood, hurricane, recession, earthquake – we expect someone (usually the government that we don’t trust, don’t want to fund, and think is the problem) to bail us out, again at no cost to us.   Such entitlement thinking is one of the symptoms of the narcissistic personality disorder. 

It is dysfunctional thinking, and can be maintained only by aggressively and callously oppressing those around you – which is exactly what a narcissist does (think “bully” – a bully is a one manifestation of a narcissist).

We have some very hard issues facing our nation – a war (or two), energy problems, a banking/financial crisis, a health insurance crisis, social security, a housing crisis, employment problems.  Hard issues require hard decisions and hard solutions.   We can in fact resolve these issues, but we have to be willing to make the hard decisions, the hard choices, the cost of the solution (and the cost of doing nothing!).  We Americans have so embraced entitlement thinking that we think self denial, self sacrifice, or any kind of sacrifice to be evil.  We believe we are entitled to everything and therefore to ask us to do anything hard is asking way too much, and we aren’t much interested in anything that is a societal good if it doesn’t benefit me personally the most. 

We would do well to remember President Kennedy’s concluding words from his inaugural address in 1961, and to look beyond the one liner usually quoted form this speech:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. 

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. 

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.

What can we do to solve the problems and crises we face?  What are we willing to give, or to give up, in order for the nation to be great?   And this last question almost seems crazy to us – why should I have to give or give up anything for the nation to be great?  Sacrifice of this kind sounds crazy to us, as it would to a narcissist.  Some are still willing to serve their country, but to give up something that perhaps others do not have to give up?  Is this asking too much?  Perhaps if  we take the hard look at ourselves we would come to realize what is crazy, dysfunctional in our thinking, and we would realize why we need to make some hard choices, and we would demand our politicians say the hard things we need to hear.