The children across the street started exploding firecrackers early, and their shining sparklers, lighting up the sky, stirred early reflections on this weekend's celebration of the country's 206th birthday.

Lately we seem to have lost our resilience and zeal of youth and adopted the ways of people who are middle-aged. We are, in fact, very close to acting as old folks do when the body starts to give out.

Watching the psychedelic lights of the children's celebration, I hear voices of a trio of Americans who are worried about this premature hardening of the arteries, and theirs are voices of hope, love, and warning.

"The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble act and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted act will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy," says John Gardner, the former head of Common Cause. "Neither its pipes or its theories will hold water." In order to have a philosophy that is attached to reality, we have to see things as they are, not as we wish them to be. A country, for example, that sells ammunition to both aggressor and victim, as we seem to do time and time again, has a problem seeing things as they really are.

"Too often in the international arena, the U.S. is associated with the status quo and the forces of oppression rather than with change in accordance with the wishes of the people of other countries," warns former UN ambassador Donald H. McHenry. "In El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Namibia, this country insists, with one excuse or another, that there is no hunger, poverty or legitimate aspiration for change greater than the fear of communism."

"How," asks Betty Friedan, "can the young women who now take their personhood for granted reconcile that new freedom with their needs for love, children, family, home? How can men liberate themselves from their own rigidified sex roles? How can we all have choices that are real?" As the children's shooting stars dim, my mind goes to the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. But despite the outcome, women will never again be the same--never so undervalued or ignored as before.

Now the fight against sexism and racism shifts to become a battle against the backlash of reaction. This reaction has spawned a certain meanness and intolerance. We've neither met the challenge not to oppress even if we disagree, nor the challenge to respect others who are different. We rack up a major victory with the extension of the Voting Rights Act, but we score a defeat when friends tell me of a group of black kids who have given in to hatred and who verbally attack whites, buoyed by the false euphoria of racism in reverse.

As the country shifts its burdens from the upper- to the lower-income groups, the rich retreat behind higher walls for safety. The gap between rich and poor seems to grow, and Anacostia seems farther and farther removed from the the Paper City so many outsiders mean when they say Washington. Hundreds of unemployed teachers in Prince George's County fret in idleness, and riffed professionals throughout the area struggle to explain to teen-aged sons why they are at home in the afternoons.

But there is still time for America to regain the resilience of youth. Someone has said that man's history is a sequence of voices calling to aggression or to defense, to battle or to peace. False voices are sometimes easier to hear, but we must not listen.

A fourth voice, this one from the past, rises above the din. "Let freedom ring!" intones Martin Luther King Jr. On this day of celebration, it is good to understand the need for contemporary voices that say what King said with the conviction of youth, voices unafraid to reflect our faults and our strengths. But it will take work if we are to hear such voices, if we are to reverse these middle-aged blahs and this creakiness. It will demand a reemphasis on our youth and idealism and an abandoning of the mentality that exhausts us and ages us.

Let's hope that by the time we reach our 207th year as a nation, we will have a better sense of freedom for the lowliest among us, and surge once more with the same energy that has carried us this far.