These are polarizing times in America, and I’m partly to blame. I read the news to be informed, but also to feed my confirmation bias. I start the day off angry and end it angrier.
As Independence Day approaches, it dawns on me that this is no way to live, whether a red state or a blue state is your home. If other Americans agree that change is necessary, how do we go about it? How do we rediscover the civic virtue of disagreeing without being disagreeable?
First we must identify the problem, which I see as this: We have diminished capacity for joy, and with that an increased tendency toward cynicism.
Reflecting on the distractions of a restless heart, C.S. Lewis wondered whether all worldly pleasures were not mere substitutes for joy. Meanwhile Oscar Wilde described the cynic as “the man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.” Nobody sets out to be that guy.
The problem defined, we can look for a solution. Whom shall we emulate? The answer, I think, lies right under our noses, in our young children. It’s their sense of innocence we hope to reclaim. We know it’s attainable because we, who delighted in a cool summer’s evening, once had it for ourselves.
Two personal experiences come to mind. Each moment would have been easy to miss, for neither was of earth-shattering importance. Thankfully in the stillness, or perhaps because of the stillness, I was alert.
The first happened a decade ago, when my oldest son was playing youth soccer. His anachronistic coach always ended practice with a footrace, a run from one goal line to the other and back again.
All the kids loved the race, even my son, which surprised me because invariably he came in last. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for him to pass his teammates at midfield on his way out when they were returning in the home stretch.
After one last-place finish, I asked him about his performance as we walked together, my hand on his little shoulder. Maybe I could help with his technique, I reasoned. I’ll never forget his reply: “Dad, I like to run with my eyes closed and feel the wind on my face.”
It took my breath away, and instantly I knew two things. First, the kid ran with pure joy in his heart, and second, it would be criminal for me to deprive him of that.
The second time was a week ago, this time through another son while we were home together on a Friday evening. This wily kindergartner keeps something that therapists would call a real problem, but that his mother and I, as parents of five, simply call his hidey-hole. It’s a small hutch in his bedroom where my little scavenger stashes anything of value that he finds around the house.
Sometimes when he’s asleep, I rummage through the contents of his hidey-hole. There’s no rhyme or reason to the value of any of it, not to me, anyway. How little I understood was made clear that night, when I was a few dollars short for the pizza delivery man.
My son walked me to his hidey-hole and opened a compartment containing dollars and change that he’d scrounged. “Here, daddy,” he said, pointing to his riches, “take whatever ‘moneys’ you need.”
Like his older brother’s footrace ten years before, I knew something sublime was happening. My boy, who knew the value of money but not its price, was the opposite of a cynic.
I know what you’re thinking. To get by in this world my oldest boy will need to run with his eyes open, while my youngest at some point must differentiate between fivers and ten-spots. But as they enter adulthood I pray they don’t lose the joy and hope in their hearts that the rest of us are striving so mightily to recapture.
Mike Kerrigan is an attorney in Charlotte.