I remember the first time I realized what an angry people Americans are. I’d pretty much gone about life thinking that Americans overall were generally kind folks who really cared about one another. For the most part, that was the bubble in which I lived.
It was right after I returned from a trip to Vietnam. We were at war again. This time with Iraq. I’d learned that we invaded Iraq while standing at the airport in Singapore. I don’t know exactly what I had expected the Vietnamese people to be like but I did think they had every right to be a people who resented Americans. We had bombed their country, killed their people, destroyed their crops and fields, much like what is happening in Ukraine right now. We’d gone into a country where we had no business and tried to split the nation apart.
Not to suggest they didn’t have their issues to begin with. They did, but we sure didn’t help matters any. And there we were in Iraq, pretty much doing the same thing all over again. Bombing another country. Killing their people. Destroying their homes and fields, all under the pretense of yet another lie.
I was nearly 50 years old when I realized that America was a bully in many ways. An angry bully who lied to get their way.
It was a pretty disheartening recognition.
And to top it all off, I came to see America as a nation whose economic health was built on a foundation of warmongering. After that trip to Vietnam, I began to look at all the memorials we have built around the country in a completely different way.
I saw them as tributes not to the men who had sacrificed their lives, as my father had done, but rather as yet another way to make money from warmongering.
If you have followed my writing for any length of time you know how much I care about Gold Star families and our veterans. So please don’t take what I am saying out of context here. Our nations veterans and military families do not make decisions about war. That’s on our politicians. Just as the Russians aren’t making decisions about what is happening in Ukraine. That’s on Putin and his puppets.
I mean no disrespect to our military families, some like mine, who have given the best of us.
We can hold two truths in our hands and hearts and our brains at the same time: It is true that our military families deserve every honor they receive, but it is also true that America is a nation built upon warmongering.
And in order to warmonger, one must stir up anger in a people.
I suppose none of us should be surprised that the anger that has been part of the brew of this nation for so long, should become the poison that threatens to destroy us. At our core, we are an angry people.
That’s what I came home from Vietnam thinking about – how so many of our people are still angry over the war in Vietnam – while the Vietnamese people have moved on. They are the forgiving ones.
I’d even asked a South Vietnamese man I met how come the Vietnamese weren’t more angry with Americans. He replied that it was because Vietnam had been at war so long that they can’t afford to hang on to their anger.
Well, I thought, Americans can’t afford to hang on to such anger either. It will destroy us.
That was in 2005.
Here it is in 2022 and those sentiments feel more like prophecies than they do insights. Our anger as a people is eating us up from the inside. It is the thing, media tells us, that is dividing our country. So many angry people.
And over what?
When I think of all the people who have a right to be angry Americans, I think of our black brothers and sisters. These past few years, I have remarked more than once that I am surprised Blacks haven’t all risen up and sliced our throats in the middle of the night.
If anyone has a right to be angry it is the descendants of the people Americans enslaved.
We went through hard times after Daddy’s death but our hard times had nothing to do with our skin color or the slant of our eyes. It had to do with Americans abandoning us. It had to do with our own turning on us.
My heart hurts when I hear the stories of how Ellen’s mother struggled in ways that only my friend Xuan understands, because she, too, lived through a similar struggle.
As a white woman, as a white girl, I knew nothing of such experiences. I still don’t. I can only understand it, or imagine it through the stories of those who have endured it.
Lived experience, Ellen calls it, when she talks about the way her poetry is formed, shaped by the color of her skin and the kink in her hair.
This week, while talking in class about what drives her poetry, Ellen paused, overcome by the grief of so many losses in her own life, so many losses in her mother’s life, so many losses in the lives of her ancestors.
We know now because science has proven it, that our own DNA is shaped by the trauma of the lived experiences of our ancestors. Their pain is our pain. Their joys are our joys. Their failings are our failings. Their achievements, ours to claim.
That’s a Biblical precept as well as a scientific fact. From one generation to the third and fourth generations.
Shortly afterwards, Ellen called me to apologize for her emotions. She said she thought she had reached a point in her life where she could speak about such loss without tearing up over it.
Look, I said, you have nothing to be sorry about. I learned years ago that my weeping over the loss of my father would make others uncomfortable. My mother used to refer to me as her “hysterical child” because I have always worn my emotions right out front. No one else in our family did and my mother did not like that about me. I used to feel ashamed of being the way I am. I wanted to be more like my mother, like my sister, like my brother. I wanted to be able to hide what I was thinking, what I was feeling.
But then once, after bawling my way through speaking at that war memorial in Washington, D.C., the one that bears my father’s name, a person told me she was surprised that I had not been able to speak without crying so much. She, like my mother, was embarrassed for me.
Something about that struck me. This notion that my weeping would embarrass another. That seemed convoluted to me. By the time I arrived back in Oregon from that trip I realized that I wasn’t in the wrong for crying.
I understood something that woman did not, something my own mother knew but feared: That if war isn’t worth crying over, what is?
I promised myself in that moment that I would never ever again apologize for weeping over the loss of my father, for the loss all our military families suffer, for the wrongs others suffered whatever the source. I refused from then on to look at the world through the warmonger paradigm of “Us” vs “Them.”
There is only US.
We are our sisters’s keepers. Our brothers, too.
I shared all of that with Ellen.
“Never apologize for weeping over that which pains you or others,” I said. “Crying is evidence of our humanity. So much of what is wrong in the world today is simply because so many are unable to weep over the hurt others suffer. They’ve lost their humanity. Jesus admonishes us to weep with those who weep. I never ever want to be a person who is unable to do that. It will mean I have lost the thing that makes me human.”
And in the words of the ever wise John Muir, may we all remember: “Earth has no sorrow which Earth cannot heal.”
Amen. Amen. Amen.