The final scene of “The Graduate” was stuck in my head today. Just the last minute or so, after they run away from the wedding, the long shot away as they sit on the bus, trying to reconcile the enormity of their choice, their actions, with whatever happens next.
Today is the Fifth of July. My many compliments to Eddie from Ohio for their song titled for today, and I’ll re-ask the question—“now what?” I heard the song for the first time this morning, while contemplating how we should could will act on our glorious independence and make lives of equality and happiness. (An apt and constant quest, I think.)
What happens on the morning after something big? Living in Boston—and wanting to foment a revolution of sorts—I wonder about the immediate moments after John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and their Continental drinking buddies signed the Declaration of Independence. Historical records will give a pretty dry account of the particulars of who signed where and when and how many broadsides were distributed, if this sacrosanct piece of our American identity ever made it to King George’s desk, and all the rest. In those details, we get a little closer to seeing these Founding Fathers as men, as mortal and human. We can understand the time it took, to see that coming to truth with one’s claimed liberty is not as easy a process as a history test would make it seem.
I want to know of the twin-knot of apprehension and exhilaration that must have been roiling beneath their broadcloth coats and homespun shirts. Were their feet hot and nervously sweating and tapping in their boots, looking for the next step? Imagine the impatience, the nervous stomachs of these men whose names and signatures on a document demanding the world be more just, of calving away from the known like an iceberg, floating away in the icy sea. To think of their fear and nervousness makes their actions braver. I prefer my heroes be mortal, fearful, fallible, daring humans pushing a little beyond the known systems of the world. In that light, I try to do things that scare me a little, to dare myself past my comfort zone, and sometimes promise more than I safely can, all of this just to force myself towards what I sense may be possible. Sometimes, I find myself stronger or more flexible or more capable than I had previously thought. Sometimes, I fall, bruise my knees, fail and cry and maybe break a bone or my heart or something irreparable, but really, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I’d like to think of the Founding Fellas wandering around the hot streets of Philadelphia that summer, daring themselves to, and then creating this document, while still unsure that they could pull off their revolution, and further, if they could pull off the trick of founding a free and fair country, of throwing off the shackles of tyranny and make a better world. (Just for today, I’ll leave off most of my opinions on how my definition of free and fair seems to differ markedly from what those chaps decided in 1776.)
There is undoubted greatness in the act of declaring. It takes enormous courage to break away from the normal patterns, as much in our own lives as in a political sense—if you still persist in believing that politics are not personal. To come to the place of knowing that a system is broken, this takes time to admit. This takes the hard effort of convincing oneself that you are not losing your mind, because you find the status quo flawed. This takes finding others who share your questions, who will search for answers with you. And it takes a brave voice to say, “The emperor has no clothes” or “We hold these truths to be self evident” or “I won’t be paying my taxes if they are going towards a war I do not support” or “I won’t move to the back of the bus.” We may begin our revolutions in whispers among friends, but there comes a time when the truth must rumble louder and disturb the peace.
But, here, after the statements have been made, the dramatic moments and seeming climaxes of the stories, what happens? What do we do, after the party dies down?
I believe that the answer is that we do the often unglamorous work to back up our passions and ideals and demands of freedom. To do otherwise would be dishonest to the courage it took to make our stand. To not hew closely to the wild truth, once spoken, undermines the power of the words. Most flag poles are not weight bearing—flags and words may be our guides and totems, but they are not the whole of the work to build better worlds.
The work is hard. Creating a fair, free, kind, and somewhat simpler world will (does) take love, time, commitment, and laborious effort. It will be may be brutal and, sometimes heart or back breaking. It will also be beautiful, and we will wonder why we ever lived any other way. And it will not be quick. This is a marathon, not a wind sprint. We are heading into undiscovered country, our declarations thrown out before us like kites tied to our hearts. What we do on the Fifth of July is take a long, hard look at what we have declared, what we have promised ourselves, if no one else. And then we begin to live accordingly. “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” That is what Ghandi said, that which has been watered down to the usual quote.
Today, and everyday hence, is time to be brave, to be passionate, to think of what could be, and then change ourselves accordingly. And to be committed, in the hard times, when the work we have chosen is a struggle, to the promise within our own passions.
To end where I began: Shakespeare’s comedies and Jane Austen’s canon all end with the wedding. We do not see much of the marriages. Not being married, I can’t know for certain, but it seems that the life after the declaration, after the action, is where the heart of our revolutions and new lives can be found. Two dear friends were married last summer. Months before, when I rsvp-ed, I gushed, “Golly! Your wedding is going to be so fun!”
“Yeah,” replied the bride. “I think the marriage is going to be pretty great also, and I’m really more excited about that part.” If I ever trot down any aisles, it'll be in that spirit.
So, by all means, let’s set off our fireworks and celebrate and declare and do passionate and daring and frightening things! And, then, let us wake up in the aftermath, find our feet and hands and hearts and together begin the joyful struggle of making the world a truly free, fair, and kind place. If we are nervous and unsure at times, as we dare ourselves towards something unknown, then so much the better. How else will we learn just how much we are capable of?
Happy Fifth of July!