That’s me. The wine-sipping, Italy-envying, nonchalant voter.
Even as a child, I compared 4th of July fireworks to blowing up money. I didn’t understand what all the pomp and circumstance was about. It
wasn’t just that I grew up in the ’90s, which meant the biggest political occurrence was the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal; it was the fact that I just couldn’t fathom why the preceding generations had such a deep respect for the nation and expected me to feel the same.
My interests were elsewhere— mainly in the dance world. I watched visiting artists parade into my summer dance camps with their European attitudes and dangling cigarettes. Ballet boasted a beautifully pretentious French vocabulary, the Russians had choreographed all the famous ballets, and the best modern dance flourished in Belgium. I found myself wrapped up in these other countries and their histories instead of paying attention to Mr. Featherstone, my junior-year U.S. History teacher. (It should be noted that this was partially Mr. Featherstone’s fault for sitting in front of the overhead projector, blocking my view and preventing worthwhile note taking.)
The rest of the world seemed so much cooler. Why couldn’t I have been born in a Venice hospital overlooking an ancient bronze-winged lion sculpture instead of in Lincoln, Nebraska, overlooking a Hy-Vee parking lot?
Yes, for a while, I blamed my lack of patriotism on dance and Mr. Featherstone’s large backside.
Once at college and on my own, my Europe-envy reached a whole new level. I started indulging in naps after lunch, going after foreign men and entertaining my more artistic side. I had chosen a college far away from my hometown. But after a short bout in Pennsylvania, I wound up in Chicago, a place I hoped would be an international hub and cultural cherry-popper. In many ways, it was. My narrow-minded idea of life, people and cultures was ripped apart and reconstructed. I was finally faced with culturally complex opposites. I was no longer smothered by other white, Catholic schoolgirls whose fathers were all avid Republicans. I grew in many ways.
I attended an arts school where hipsters, European-wannabes and gatherers of political ambivalence converged in all of their apathetic glory. FINALLY I wouldn’t be the least patriotic person in my community, or even in my dorm room for that matter. My Laguna Beach roommate was the queen of art-school apathy. Her knowledge of Andy Warhol, Jack Daniels and Bond No. 9 NYC fragrances was considerably more advanced than her political discernment. Nonetheless, she’d go on rampages at parties declaring, “We are the generation of APATHY.” She was clearly using this sweeping generalization to sound sexy and intelligent, which totally worked on the posse of PBR-drinking, electronica-listening, flannel-wearing boys who followed her around at parties. She knew her audience.
After hearing her proclamation so many times, I began to ponder it myself. Was I apathetic because I’d never had to defend my freedom? Was it because being patriotic meant fitting into a box, and I was trying so hard to be anti-box, which consequently put me into the anti-box box? Why couldn’t I force myself into reading political news or getting excited when legislature passed a bill?
The Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers seemed to think my roommate was right. To them, we Millennials sauntered around in our dispassionate vanity,
trying at all costs to avoid the political blood, sweat and tears that came before us. We were ungrateful and tuned out. We didn’t deserve the cushion-y life our parents and grandparents had created for us! Now, I know some Millennials out there are quite the opposite—involved, smart and politically ambitious—but at the time of my roommate’s party assertions, the theory rang true to me.
Patriotism means a love and devotion to one’s country. Seems simple, right? No. It couldn’t be more complex in an era when the very ideas of love and devotion are as nebulous as a broken kaleidoscope. Does loving one’s country mean to appreciate our government and honor our president? If so, the presence of political skepticism across our smattering of news outlets makes it difficult to blindly appreciate and honor. A 2014 article by The Economist said that young people, who are more “cosmopolitan, liberal and hopeful than their elders, tend to be switched off by negativity and cynicism.” It’s true—vultures of doubt encircle us, and doubt can cause emotional fluctuation.
Then there’s devotion. Does it mean partaking in civil duties like voting and upholding traditions like planting an American flag in your front yard? If so, according to The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, only 21.5 percent of young people ages 18-29 voted in the 2014 midterm elections. According to the same Economist article, that number is not because we’re lazy—this generation volunteers more, is better educated and uses less drugs/alcohol than previous generations. It’s because we feel there’s no one worth voting for.
So there I sat, on the outskirts of my roommate’s audience, having this internal dialogue and realizing it all boils down to emotion. With skepticism, negativity and grim leadership prospects contaminating young mindsets everywhere, it seems reasonable that emotional investment is at an all-time low. Only less than 5 percent of Millennials has personally served on active duty in the United States Armed Forces. Serving one’s country is an emotional task involving body, mind and spirit. The need for active service men and women is not as dire now as World War II, but what if that changed? Would Millennials drop everything if the expectation to serve and trust the powers that be were imposed upon them?
Fast forward to March 25, 2015 in Nenzel, Nebraska. It was time to bury my grandfather. Grandpa Fritz, born in 1924. A feisty, black-licorice type-a guy. I got in my rental car and drove 12 hours across Iowa and Nebraska until I reached the Sand Hills, where cattle are more prevalent than people. Although most of his life was spent as a ranch hand in Western Nebraska, he’d spent the last 10 years of his life living in San Diego with my aunt, a retired nurse. Up until his death, he insisted on taking monthly trips to Las Vegas, where his portrait hung among the top Sharpshooters in America. That’s just the
type of person he was—a stubborn, fire-spitting force with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. A Sharpshooter.
This man had been inducted into the Marine Corps in October of 1943. He served overseas with Company B, 5th Tank Battalion, 5th Marine Division, in the Hawaiian Islands, Iwo Jima, V.I., Saipan, M.I., Kyushu, and Japan. The battle and capture of Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest campaigns of its time. He survived when many did not.
At his funeral, we sang the official song of the United States MarineCorps, The Marines’ Hymn:
Here’s health to you and to our Corps, Which we are proud to serve.
In many a strife we’ve fought for life, And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy, Ever look on heavens scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded, By United States Marines.
The grandchildren carried his casket to the vestibule of the church where the American flag was unraveled and placed over his coffin. As we walked out, a handful of his surviving Marine friends stood with their rifles at attention, overlooking their fellow warrior. They were united by their sacrifices; sacrifices I could never personally imagine. In that moment, intermixed with sadness and nostalgia, I felt a wave of patriotism rush through me. This man, now encased, had once fought for my freedom, for all of our freedom. He’d set aside his personal ambitions to give his body, mind and spirit for the sake of
our country. I don’t know if I’d ever have the courage to serve my country like my grandfather did, but my profound respect for his legacy disrupted my apathetic slumber.
As I stood in a stupor, I realized I’d spent my whole life fighting away this notion, this idea, this feeling of patriotism, when all along it was right in front of me, even a part of me. Curiosity started to overcome my disinterest, issuing new vibrations of thought to my political consciousness. Things were finally awakening in me. And that’s when I decided: I’d rather be awake than asleep.
I still envy Europe, dislike fireworks and take naps after lunch, but now I choose to feel, rather than resist. I choose awareness over apathy.