What I Believe Makes America Great

randy heinitz

June 21, 2017

Gerald is a retired CPS worker in his late 50s — and yesterday he was also my Lyft driver.

Gerald spent 28 years investigating thousands of child abuse claims and now drives for Lyft to make some extra cash. I asked him what he learned working that job for so many years — hoping to distill his life experience into some nuggets of wisdom.

“Most people wouldn’t want to hear this,” he said, as I silently anticipated his answer. “The thing I learned in investigating all those claims — is that some people are just pure evil.”

He paused and looked at me, as if expecting me to defend the human race by speaking to our innate goodness. Yet as I looked in his eyes I saw a man who had been profoundly affected by his work.

He continued — “They say that if you dig through trash long enough that after a while all you see is trash — that’s why I had to leave.”

I tried to imagine what he had been through. “I bet you’ve seen some pretty horrible things — maybe even as bad as some horror movies.” 

He agreed, and replied — “At times, the things I had to deal with were no different than horror movies, but it was real life.”

Yet, it was what he said next that surprised me the most.

He said that as evil as some of the people were who neglected, mistreated and abused helpless children, there were also people who represented the other extreme, and were unbelievably kind and generous. He got to see both.

As we arrived the destination I thanked Gerald for the conversation, he tapped his Lyft app and we said goodbye.

As I pondered what Gerald shared, I realized that the extremes of human experience is one of the things I find so fascinating about living in America.

Ever since Donald Trump’s ambiguous campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” became a cultural meme, I’ve been asking myself what I believe makes America great, and are we even great at all? Certainly in some areas America is a world leader, but what makes us great? What makes us unique? Is it our innovation? Is it our ability to project power anywhere in the world? Is it our “freedom”?

For me, it’s none of those. What I believe makes America great is the fact that we are a lot like the people Gerald spoke of.

We are a country of extremes.

We are one of the fattest nations in the world and yet we’re also a leader in nutrition, fitness and health innovation.1

We suffer from massive cultural sexual repression and yet we’re also home to some of the most progressive thought-leaders in that space.

We have the highest incarceration in the world and yet we are amongst the world leaders in human self-development.2

We represent the best and the worst of the human experience. While people could accuse the United States of many things, one thing we may never be accused of is being boring. In fact, we’re so wildly unpredictable that it’s part of our appeal.

It makes sense too, because as a country the United States is relatively young. We were founded just over 200 years ago, which if you compare that to many other countries, makes us seem like teenagers just starting to go through puberty.

We’re like the Justin Bieber of countries — we got famous, then just as we hit the scene our testosterone kicked in and now everyone is watching as we make bad decisions and try and figure out who we are as adults.

Not to say that because a country is old that it’s wise — Iran has been around since 3200 BC and it seems as if they’re going backwards when it comes to social progress.

I guess all this is to say that I do think America is great, but definitely not for the reasons many people state. When I think of what makes America great I think of that wonderful quote by George Bernard Shaw.

Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

That’s us — we go for it.

We’re cocky, we’re arrogant, but we’re also dreamers and innovators. We may be completely wrong but dammit if we don’t bring conviction to what we think.

I admire that, not because it’s what the world needs — but because it’s interesting. And at the end of the day, I’d rather live in a country that’s interesting, rather than “great”.

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  1. http://www.oecd.org/els/health-systems/Obesity-Update-2017.pdf
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_incarceration_rate