Everyday Observations

Understanding what patriotism means


On a trip to Washington, D.C., recently, I was reminded of what it feels like to be patriotic. It’s something most of us say that we are, but it can be difficult to explain the emotions it brings up when we are feeling it.

The feeling is powerful when you are standing and staring up at Mr. Abraham Lincoln. The president who helped us keep us together. No easy feat during any generation. We are individualists more and more. To the president’s left and right are words carved into limestone. Big words, but only a few words.

When the country needed him the most, he said only what needed to be said. There it is memorialized for generations. I read the Gettysburg address and some of his other immortal thoughts, and I felt patriotic. We were blessed to have him.

Many of the memorials in the nation’s capital include steps, many steps. Somehow it makes sense to have to walk up to these giants of history. Lincoln, Jefferson, Martin Luther King. Jr. They walked their steps and left their marks in history.

Most of us don’t walk too many steps anymore. We want to make a difference in the snap of a finger. Take a picture of what we did and then tell the world we did it. We are a different generation.

I had a different sense of patriotism as I experienced other memorials. The long wall of names with the fallen heroes of the Vietnam War gives you a certain feeling. Gratitude and appreciation, but also sadness and even some questions.

That’s part of patriotism, asking questions. Flags and buildings, famous historical figures, they can all stir up emotions and give us pride to be Americans. Those feelings are temporary. Something else has to keep us going, to keep us being patriotic.

During this four-day trip, four college students joined me. They were learning too, what it means to be patriotic. They have a different sense of patriotism than I do. They are still forming what they believe to be patriotic, what it means to love a country.

Loving something changes over time. You fall in love, and then you realize that it can be complicated. That you can question motives and decisions. That you can push back. That you can feel like you fall in and out of love. That doesn’t mean that in the long stretch you love any less.

I love my country, but I don’t always agree with it. That can make love thorny. That’s the patriotic part of myself that I was reminded of during this trip. Walking by the Supreme Court, I understood it. Passing the White House, I thought of it. Places of history, and places of decisions that have pushed us in different directions for over 200 years.

During the trip, I attended conference sessions, heard from politicians and national leaders. One reminded me, and the students, that it is “external pressure” that moves the halls of Congress. That’s patriotism too.