Suffering and America's soul
Anderson edited "Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework" (Springer, 2014), has taught at five universities and ran for the Democratic nomination for a Maryland congressional seat in 2016.
The British Romantic poet John Keats remarked in one of his famous letters – letters that the British literary critic F.R. Leavis said were as important as his poems – that the world is "a vale of soul-making." He was responding to the traditional Christian view that the suffering in the world made life a "vale of tears," as in a valley of tears. The vale of tears led to an afterlife of eternal happiness, but Keats believed that the suffering on Earth needed to have meaning here – namely the building of a soul.
Life's inescapable suffering, according to Keats, could be used to build a soul, one capable of self-understanding as well as understanding others. Life requires understanding the harshness of reality, and the meaning of life turns on whether you can grow from the suffering.
Keats articulated this view of life when he was 23. When he was 8 he lost his father, who was stomped by a horse after falling off. Keats lost his mother, who had tuberculosis, when he was 14. He witnessed intense suffering when he studied to become a doctor. At age 22, he took care of his younger brother Tom, who died of tuberculosis. Keats himself died of tuberculosis when he was 25.
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Keats' concept of life as a vale of soul-making can also be applied to a society.
The life of a democratic society like the United States passes through many stages on its quest to become a more perfect union. Those stages are marked by innovation, scientific and technological developments, and moral progress as much as by violence, exploitation, lynchings, war, and injustice.
Historians speak about periods of America's life, including the founding period, the Civil War, the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, World War I, the New Deal age, the Civil Rights era, the Cold War and the Reagan Revolution. Each of these periods is certainly marked by political, economic and social changes.
Yet the soul of the country is something more than the changing nature of the country's politics, economy and culture. Moreover, the soul of a nation is more complex than the soul of a person, because nations have groups in conflict with each other and may lack a sense of national identity and purpose.
What is missing in America today is not only a shared sense of national identity and purpose but a shared assumption that we need to have a shared sense of national identity and purpose.
Many Washington insiders may talk about this need, but the majority of Americans do not. Instead they are voting for politicians who support the policies that matter to them – whether it concerns abortion, guns, health care, immigration, child care or the environment – or just living their lives indifferent to politics or believing that both parties ignore them.
We have reached a point in the evolution of our national soul where we need to rethink the story of who we are.
The Keats theme of suffering and meaning can help. The suffering our citizens have endured has frequently led to profound changes in our political and economic institutions.
The story, however, cannot be focused on freedom, because this will turn into an intellectual hymn to a thin form of capitalism and very general affirmation of the Bill of Rights. Nor can we just list freedom, equality, toleration and justice because that will result in a smorgasbord of democratic ideals that is at once inspiring and not identifiable as distinctly American.
Seeking the American Dream is worn out.
Indeed, we need to rise above July Fourth orations and get to a concept that will unite Americans across the political spectrum and those who have checked out of politics altogether.
The Keatsian suffering theme can speak to radicals today who want to root out systemic racism, sexism and all forms of oppression.
The Keatsian suffering theme can also speak to mainstream liberals who celebrate the victories for women (getting the right to vote in 1920), for African-Americans (with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964), and memes of the LGBTQ community (who won rights in the last decade).
Finally, the Keatsian suffering theme can speak to conservatives who celebrate with pride and patriotism the passion and moral drive of the Founding Fathers and the men who fought in the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.
The American soul will not take no for an answer.
It is born of suffering, it fights injustice and it never gives up, even though at any given time the society is divided between those who believe justice reigns and those who believe injustice prevails.
In the months leading up to the midterm elections, both parties and all candidates should explain to the American people what it means to be an American and why failing is no reason to stop trying to make our country better and to make peace in the world.
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