The United States of America is bereft. Bereft of our humanity. Bereft of a sense of community. Bereft of a motivating meaning and purpose. Bereft of our very soul.
In a post to The Green Pen in February 2018 following a mass school shooting, I noted that such incidents of violence are but symptoms, along with drug and other addictions, teen suicides, domestic violence, and such, of a deeper malady, an unhappiness in a society that was founded on the “pursuit of happiness.” I concluded with:
The root cause lies…somewhere deep within our cultural norms and values, and we will only get at it through some deep national soul-searching and self-reflection. Cultures are supposed to be the mediums for growing things, for nurturing life. Ours clearly is falling short.
“First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans…
Sound familiar? President Jimmy Carter uttered these words in an address to the nation forty years ago almost to the day, on July 15, 1979. In his famous (or, to some, infamous) “malaise” speech (in which he never actually used the word “malaise”), President Carter went on to say:
“We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
“All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves.”
These words sound equally apt, perhaps even more so, in today’s national climate. My wife, daughter, and I watched the speech together on television, as a family. My then-10-year-old daughter Unmi totally got it and was quite moved and inspired by his words.
In his speech, Carter peered more deeply into the American psyche at the time, describing what he called a “crisis of confidence”. Additional apt excerpts are reproduced below and sound like they could well describe where we are as a nation today. Indeed, the malaise has only worsened big time over the past 40 years.
It is time to heal. Way past time.
President Carter’s three paragraphs above prescribe a way forward to healing and the choice facing us again (or still) today. Yes, the first step in a national process of healing – literally, “making whole again” – is to “face the truth.” Not for purposes of shame or blame or guilt tripping, for such would just be perpetuating more of the same “us vs. them” dynamic and thus be inimical to “making whole.” Rather it would be an open, frank, and honest acknowledgement of who we are as a nation, where we’ve come from, and how we’ve gotten to where we are today, with all the grace we’ve enjoyed and the grief we’ve suffered along the way. In a restorative justice sense, such a healing process would be characterized by community caring, listening, taking responsibility, and, where necessary, making appropriate restitution.
A process of national healing would acknowledge the European colonies that founded and grew to the United States of America, the Native American cultures and nations that preceded those colonies, the African slaves brought to this land against their will, and the waves of immigrants who came to this country seeking freedom and a better life. And it would acknowledge the living Earth that they have all become part and parcel of – plains, forests, mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, oceans, flora, and fauna. All of them and all of their stories together comprise the national DNA that has made us who we are today and thereby set the stage for our future.
Facing the truth of that history – both the grace and the grief – is essential for healing the wounds that have come with it so that we may then follow what President Carter called for: a “path of common purpose and the restoration of American values…that…leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves.”
President Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” Speech of July 15, 1979
…But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can't fix what's wrong with America…I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy…
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.
The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America…
Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy…We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose…
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose…
As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning…
These changes did not happen overnight. They've come upon us gradually over the last generation, years that were filled with shocks and tragedy…These wounds are still very deep. They have never been healed.
Looking for a way out of this crisis, our people have turned to the Federal government and found it isolated from the mainstream of our nation's life. Washington, D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.
What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.
Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don't like it, and neither do I. What can we do?
First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans…
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves….