I’ve said this before: I’m not proud to be an American. Or an Idahoan, for that matter.
I am not proud to be a white person, a male person or even a human person. I’m not proud that I still have all of my hair, or that I am 66 years old or that I managed to start out in one millennium and end up in another.
On the other hand, I am not un
-proud of any of those things, either. Pride in something about yourself that you had no hand in, and came to you through no effort or accomplishment of your own, is an empty vessel. I don’t quite see it as being on the same level as the other seven deadly sins, but I do see it as hollow sound and fury, signifying nothing.
And whenever I hear someone proclaim how proud they are of being an American (an Idahoan, a white guy, not bald, a Baby Boomer), I usually just nod and grin, then move on in hopes of finding someone more interesting to listen to.
However, in regards to my country, there is a sensation that comes over me now and then that I wouldn’t trade for being proud, not ever. I call it a “sensation” because I don’t know what else to call it. It is an emotion, definitely, rather than a mere thought or a passing fancy, and it is a strong emotion. When it comes, I almost always feel myself getting teary or a shiver running up my spine, or both. It usually happens in a moment of intensity, when something is happening that I realize is a once-in-a-lifetime event. And more often than not, it is a tragic event.
It doesn’t always have to be tragic. I felt it the moment Barack Obama was announced the winner in the 2008 presidential election, and I’ve often felt it when we watch the extraordinary efforts American soldiers, American cops, American firefighters or just plain Americans will take to bring relief to a desperate and battered country, a sinking boatload of refugees, victims of disaster, or even a family of ducklings trapped in a storm drain or a bear with her head caught in a bucket.
But it is tragedy that brings it out the most reliably. I think I felt it the first time in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s murder, seeing the sadness of a whole country reflected in the faces of my parents.
I felt it the night I was in Moscow and heard that town’s church bells all start to peal, one after the other, when the announcement was made that the Vietnam War was over. I felt it when I watched Richard Nixon board the plane that took him, in disgrace, forever away from power, and I felt it last year when news came of those 19 firefighters overcome by the flames of a wild fire.
I never felt it stronger than on Sept. 11, 2001. It lasted for days, and I believe it is what got me, probably most of us, through that week. Like a flush of hot existential epiphany running through my veins, I felt it: I am an American.
I didn’t feel the need to take pride in the fact. At times like that, the simple truth that I am part of, and witness to, and a shareholder in the unfolding of the American saga is powerful enough without having to dress it up as pride.
At no time during the aftermath of that horror did the awareness of being part of this grand whole strike home more than when I stumbled upon the somber, stately spectacle of what is preserved in the video I bring you this day—this anniversary of everything America has been and has become. It happened during the daily changing of the Queen’s Guard in London on that very day, 9/11, and it remains to me the most meaningful and poignant rendition of our national anthem I ever expect to hear. No lyrics were necessary, no vocal pyrotechnics were called for. The pure, uncomplicated music itself—performed by a stiff Brit military band in red coats, of all things—carried all the weight of the message we all needed to hear…
“Gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there.”