When I was 17, I chose to become an American citizen. Immigrating with my family at 13 to Alabama from a private boarding school in Scotland was difficult for my family. My parents’ marriage could not withstand the pressures. I grew up feeling confused and out of step. So many missteps, as simple as the use of English, like everyone got the US instruction manual but me.
Asking someone in the seventh grade, “Can I borrow I rubber?” did not mean what I thought it meant. When mother explained why the boy behind me laughed, I was mortified. I asked him for an ‘eraser,’ and he thought I was asking him for a condom. Eeoogh.
When the time came to go to university, my mother was utterly lost. I needed American citizenship to accept scholarships and at some institutions, back then, to even submit an admissions application.
I chose citizenship because, in high school’s Civics class and American Government classes, the American system presented a model of checks and balances, made up of groups helping each other create and maintain a democracy. The government was rational and prudent to my 17-year-old mind.
The actual occasion was memorable. Going before the judge in Mobile, I answered questions about American history and government from information I had been taught in school and augmented by ancillary reading done at night. I wore my best clothes – a black and green print shirt and a green corduroy wraparound skirt. I curled my hair. I couldn’t stop smiling. A teacher from my high school was there. He was from Mexico and getting his citizenship that day too. We were part of a larger group of immigrants. There is a picture of us standing before the US flag in the Mobile newspaper. It was a proud day for my family. A moment where I carved out a piece of my identity. My family went out to eat afterward at our favorite place, a little salad shop in the mall. Now I had the instruction manual.
I was the first of my siblings to receive citizenship. It was an honor. It breaks my heart to see the country torn apart by this election –people torn apart. Friends and family, colleagues and companies split by the divisiveness of this time. The price of the instruction manual is steep.
I am not saying that we shouldn’t be activists and stand for what we believe in. That is my definition of a government of, for, and by the people.
I am saying that a democracy should help elevate the people of the country to higher levels of thinking about complex social dilemmas. A government should help the people reach and create more.
More appreciation for diversity, not just tolerance but union.
More health, physical, mental, and spiritual, not my way or the highway.
More equality between and among groups, not justice for some.
More complexity in thinking, not moral relativism.
More compassion for emotional responses, not discounting nor overrating but integration.
Pay for your instruction manual whether given at birth or with your citizenship papers: what are you doing to mend our collective broken hearts?