These last few days I have been thinking about this land, from the point of view of what might be special about this place on which we live. The settlement of America by the European peoples is taught by and to their descendants as one of Manifest Destiny—the creation of a civilization on this land that became the dominant power on the world stage; not only dominant but special. American exceptionalism.

In thinking about this I keep going back to what seems to me to be the three part foundation of our civilization. The first part, the fact that the land, the forests, the waters, and the plants and animals were all a gigantic buffet on which the settlers came and feasted, with an unrestrained gluttony that consumed everything fecund in their path. Hundreds of millions of passenger pigeons brought to extinction in only a few years, millions of bison slaughtered with no thought of using them for food, topsoil so deep, several feet deep, decimated in the course of three or four generations of farmers who used up the land, then moved westward to repeat the same defilement. And it continues today.

The second part, the fact that this land was not empty, but was inhabited by hundreds of tribes of native peoples, numbering millions of people. And that they were not dealt with primarily by treaty and the establishment of reservations, as we are taught, but first and foremost by disease and mass murder. And the people who were supposed to help them; the priests and ministers and the social workers; all conspired to try to eliminate their languages, their cultures, their very ways of life. And it continues today.

And the third part, the fact that so much of the labor was slave labor. Cargo ships carrying black men and women across the Atlantic in unspeakable conditions served to populate the plantations and communities of much of young America. So little spoken about now are the facts and conditions of their lives lived out in slavery. And even after the Civil War and reconstruction, the treatment of these peoples by many members of the white race was abhorrent. And it continues today.

American exceptionalism.

It seems that these three truths about this land cut to the bone. Like it or not, they form much of the fabric out of which our society has been formed, and continues to be re-formed even now. It is not only a question of my own culpability, though certainly there is enough of that. Nor is it about feeling guilt, though one might. Rather, it is a question of living with these truths. To live with the truth of how things came to be as they now are requires living with a remorse that is deep and lasting. I cannot change what has been. I certainly cannot justify it. I might chose to forget about it, to ignore it. Or I can chose to suffer that this place, so precious to me, was founded and is still sustained through such deeds. To suffer it, and in feeling remorse, to begin to experience what it means to be part of this place in a more complete, more deeply felt way. I am a product of this land. I can be conscious of what that means, or I can remain unconscious. I wish to become conscious. To do so requires living with both the joy of it all, but also living with the sorrow of it all, as well. To allow one’s heart to be touched by these hard truths, not once, but over and over again, is the task of a person who understands that this remorse is a necessary precondition for becoming human.

Comments are welcome.

 
 

8 Comments

  1. Balancing on the teeter totter
    Compassion/sorrow
    Today/tomorrow
    Now, right now
    What are my choices
    Time is short
    Options abound
    Will I live in fear and sorrow
    Or love and hope.
    Everyday a new dawn
    A new choice.

  2. Thank you, once again, Dennis. I’ve been thinking of this too, although not being able to put my thoughts down as eloquently. The coronavirus has exposed how much these marginalized groups are still suffering; the numbers of cases and deaths for Hispanics, African Americans and Native Americans are far above the numbers for whites. We give money to Doctors without Borders and was dismayed that the Navajo Nation has so many cases—more than any state—that this organization has had to come in to help them. So many people think the US is exceptional in its civility, power, wealth and compassion, while Covid-19 and Trump have shown the world the truth.

  3. It is a sad fact that the Promise of America has never been fulfilled. Sadder that the founding fathers did not have the additional insight, wisdom, fortitude and wherewithal to recognize the evil (I dislike that word immensely- maybe immoral, foul, vile is better) of slavery, lack of recognition of women and women’s rights and the Sacredness of All Beings Born Eternal.

    Perhaps we are products of our time, our environment – and War, Hate, Greed, and Corrupt Societies have been around a long time all over this Green Planet and blame can be shared by All. It was never just America although the Founders lit a Bright Torch to lead the way for what never before had been seen (at least in this current aeon). I cringe that the Promise of the 60’s and the Light that was Unleashed fell to the darkside and that our generation lost the Vision and built and continued the Greed and the Corrupt ways for all to see in front of us now.

    On a Sacred note, I always look for the Blessing inside of what befalls us, the lessons to be learned, the growth to see beyond our current circumstances. Eternal Grace surrounds Us even now. Truth be told every step we take is on Sacred Ground. We are immersed inside the Mystic. Wherever you are, you find the Center of the Universe. Perhaps inside all our troubles the Light is to be found…

  4. Thank you, Chal. It is a question of holding two emotions at the same time. One love, one remorse. How to do that? I appreciate very much what you wrote.

  5. Thank you very much. It is good what you say, and helpful as well.

  6. Thank you very much, Karen. Perhaps it is not so much choosing, but rather allowing both sides to come into one at the same time.

  7. I have been helping with the Idaho Conservation League and was looking into an old mining law from the early 1800’s that sadly is still the law used to justify our current mining on public lands when I had a similar feeling. My realization was that our whole society is based on the ideals that all that is natural around us is inherently ours to exploit as we see fit, as though that is a right we are granted for being human. It is interesting to think about what our world would look like if instead we thought that taking from the land was a gift, rather than a right…the way the native people before us believed. Thanks for this.

  8. Thanks for what you wrote, Jeff. It was spot on. Having been involved in many environmental actions in my life, the most sobering part is that every victory is temporary, every loss is permanent. Yet, to leave the field of action is not an option. Part of the experience of true remorse is to stay with the emotion, not avoiding it, but employing it to help one stay engaged. And thank you for your efforts with ICL, it all matters.

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