I walked through the front door of my house this morning to find my roommate’s girlfriend sitting on our couch. I don’t know her very well, so she initiated some small talk. “Well? Are you going to do anything fun or patriotic to celebrate the 4th of July?” she asked. “To be honest,” I replied, “I celebrate America every day of my life. Why should today be any different?” She looked at me blankly. The conversation quickly ended. That’s how it goes with me most of the time, I guess. But it got me thinking. Those who know me well know that I take my country very seriously, and I care a lot. But all of us have to step back every now and then and think about what it truly means to be an American. As I sat on my porch and pondered this idea, I realized that at this particular moment in my life, the United States of America carries a different meaning to me than it has in the past. Allow me to explain.
At some point, I read a poem that affected me to such a degree that I copied it by hand in one of my journals and refer to it regularly. It is titled ‘Columbus’ by the great Joaquin Miller and reads as follows:
Behind him lay the great Azores,
Behind the gates of Hercules:
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said, “Now we must pray,
For lo! The very stars are gone.
Brave Adm’r’l, speak; what shall I say?”
“Why, say: ‘Sail On! Sail On! And On!’”
Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck
And peered through darkness. Ah that night!
Of all dark nights! And then a speck –
A light! A light! A light! A light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled
It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
Its grandest lesson: “On! Sail on!”
This poem illustrates with a masterful touch that America truly was and is a light on the horizon. Indeed, a burst of dawn – a symbol of hope to the voyager and the world. And even while being all of this, it is noted that it was not attained except for after a struggle. When the very stars disappeared and all was lost but to pray, they sailed on. Christopher Columbus and his men were guided, I believe, by the hand of a Greater Power. A Designer, in fact, with a plan integrally dependent on the establishment of a new, free world. This preliminary “discovery” of the American continent was so altering in history, so important and consequential to the fate of man that very few of us can truly know to what scale of significance this land has. Yet here we read the interpretation of the greatest lesson of all: That of enduring. This idea of “sailing on,” to me, is the essence of the American Spirit. At least my American Spirit. Right now.
As I contemplate today what America means to me, I am overcome with a variety of special emotions mostly brought on as a result of the challenges and vicissitudes of my life. Things like the exploration of careers, pursuit of an education, gaining fortune and status, pleasing God and my family, and probably the worst of all…sojourning through the barren wasteland of dating, courting, and other social situations of consequence. I feel fortunate beyond measure to live in a country where all of these things are open and available to me, according to my willingness to work at it. Nevertheless, the mortal struggle is real no matter where you pitch your tent. Many of you, including myself, can perhaps relate to Columbus in the sense that we too are navigating a scary, seemingly shoreless sea – above us only starless skies. “Hang in there” are words often spoken. “Everything will work out” has become the tritest of encouraging clichés. At times we may feel that all that’s left for us is prayer. And then, from that Higher Source, we hear that same “Sail on!”
There is no brighter or richer future of potential than the American one. Regardless of intellect or capacity, every woman and man born on this star-spangled soil has the chance to make something of themselves. That being said, Americans simultaneously have the God-given and constitutionally-protected freedom to fail miserably and squander opportunity just the same. There in the freedom to fail lies, in my opinion, just as much strength if not more. Why is that? Because we can go at it again. The quantity of chances you have for success are limited only by the number of days you spend living. In America, more so than in any other nation on earth, you can sail on. And yes, something is bound to work out for you if you do what’s right. How do I know this? Because it’s a promise from someone a lot more important than me.
Today, above all the fireworks and barbecues, ice cold brews and red, white, and blues, my America means enduring. Those uncapturable elements of the human character, even the figurative flicker of light in the eye of the mariner explorer surrounded by vast darkness, are what makes America the greatest there is. If we must pass through trials, uncertainty, fear, tragedy, illness in all its variety, heartache, heartbreak, and the despair of one failed attempt after another, at least we have the blessing of suffering in America. Because here, we can keep going. So sail on, America. Sail on.