Pollsters report that a significant number of Americans name political polarization as a major issue. Voices keep shouting out from TV and computer screens to clocks that wake us in the morning to car radios that scream at us as we gingerly try to make our way through traffic.
The question reverberates: Are we who live in today’s America too divided to ever again peacefully occupy the same space, much less come together to find real solutions?
Seeking to escape the noise, we head west on the Sunset Highway to the Pacific Ocean. As we make our way past the late afternoon traffic, tensions begin to ease. When we turn onto a two-lane highway through gently rolling hills, they ease more. From there it is a winding and sometimes rough road through the Coast Range over pavement rutted by winter landslides, and down alongside the beautifully clear Nehalem river beloved by winter steelhead fishermen saddened by declining fish populations. Above us and in the distance sit hills shorn by clearcuts, some replenished by new growth including that planted by hopeful schoolchildren years ago.
Beginning our descent, we see the ocean spreading out before us, sun bouncing off the waves, a sparkling reminder of the possibilities beyond the limitations of our own perceptions. We take a deep breath and walk toward the sandy beach spreading out beneath the rocky shore. Our breathing relaxes as we remove our shoes and feel the warm sand covering our toes. Skidding along, we are filled with joy at the sound of singing sand slipping beneath the soles of our bare feet. We smile at the sandpipers busily skittering to and fro, searching for food left behind by a retreating wave.
Then suddenly an angry voice shatters the momentary peace. A large man is standing in the middle of a retreating wave. He is emptying one bag after another of metal cans, plastic utensils and coated containers and is surrounded by the garbage from his family’s dinner that he has tossed carelessly into the surf. A woman is pointing to the mess and asking him softly to please clean it up. A crowd has gathered. He throws her a withering look and shouts: “This is my country and I’ll do whatever I damn well please!” Then turning on her with a threatening gesture, he points to the campaign button on her sweater and shouts: “Why you’re not even a real American, are you?” Stunned into silence, the woman steps back, but the crowd does not. “We’re all Americans,” they shout back at him. “And we’re all telling you to clean up your own mess!” In that moment, those who had gathered to watch the sunset, rejected the idea of a country torn apart by resentful voices, egged on by a storm of anger, entitlement and vituperation. Instead, we all, we Americans, stood together beautifully, in answer to the angry taunts of those who seek to divide us. In that moment we found again that spirit of e pluribus unum the traditional motto selected by Jefferson, Adams and Franklin appearing on the original Great Seal of the United States adopted in 1782: “Out of many, one.”
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