The mythology of origins is a hallmark of every nation. Whether it was two brothers raised by a wolf or the founding fathers, a nation’s sense of itself is based on a shared story of its birth.
Consider the Fourth of July, a moment when we celebrate and retell our story. Buried within our expectations of fireworks, hotdogs and picnics, we are encouraged to take a moment to look back at our nation’s establishment.
We speak about freedom, democracy and liberty. Core values derived from our nation’s creation, the words have a talismanic nature; we feel them deeply. The words resonate and define us as a group.
Yet, across the United States of America, as we recite and recall these founding concepts, we don’t all see them the same way. We share the story of the founding fathers — yet over the generations, our national identity has apparently frayed.
Our current political discourse about freedom and rights is illustrative. Whether discussing business, religion, guns, or heath care, our national conversation eventually leads to fundamental disagreement. Often, the differing views stem from the same discord: What does freedom actually mean?
Is freedom the right to unilaterally act as we wish, when we wish and without consequence to others? Or, is it constrained by how it affects those around us?
Does your freedom to wave your arms end at the tip of my nose?
In theory, this incongruity can be resolved through sheer democracy — equal representation for every citizen. Yet as the current campaign for the November presidential election inches along, viewpoints on democracy are at the root of our current disagreements on voter participation, immigration and campaign financing.
Right now, our national challenge is to reach a consensus on the meaning of our story of origin. We fight one another on the intentions of the founding fathers, and whether they knew the best approach for a complex society almost 250 years away. We fight over semantics and in doing so, lose the thread of a common identity.
And the struggle is not just historical, but human. The conflict between doing what one wants for himself/herself and what is good for society is fundamental to human nature. We are driven by both ego and a sense of community. We are solitary and tribal. We trust those close to us, and fear others. The conflict we face in balancing these impulses is not an a singularly American issue. It is fundamental to human nature.
The genius and uniqueness of the United States is the ability for its citizens to express their humanity. To be an American is to debate and resolve the internal conflicts that all humans face. Often unresolvable on an individual level, they are often messy, engrossing and deeply felt. That has been the case since our origins.
As a nation, we would be much better off if we understood that disagreement is not unique to our country. What separates us from the rest of the world is our search for ways to create a dynamic and vibrant nation out of varying opinions.
As you celebrate the Fourth of July, find someone with whom you profoundly disagree politically. Shake their hand, start a conversation and try to see their point of view. In that moment, you will reconnect with our national identity. It might get messy, but as long as we are talking with each other and not past each other, we are being true to our best nature. And, in that we are also being our most American.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.