Holiday perspective on the American character

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(Host) This holiday season, commentator Nick Boke has been thinking a lot about what it means to be an American.

(Boke) Our daughter in Berkeley couldn’t get time off to come home for Thanksgiving, so my wife flew to California while I stayed home to fend for myself. Turkey for one didn’t sound like much fun, so when I saw an article in the paper about folks who’d be distributing Thanksgiving dinners, I decided to volunteer.

I telephoned and was invited me to lend a hand. I showed up at the South Royalton House at 10 o’clock on Thanksgiving Morning.

Thirty turkeys had been donated by grocery stores and a food distributor. The food was prepared and cooked in the South Royalton House kitchen, in local churches and by community members. About 25 of us dished up the dinners that were delivered as far away as Stockbridge and Vershire by another couple of dozen volunteers. Around 300 meals in all, plus another 120 that were served in the restaurant afterwards.

Driving home, I reflected on what’s good about this country. Our willingness to come together to lend a hand. Our belief that by working together we can make a difference. For the next few days I felt pretty positive about who we are and what we believe and do. I felt thankful to be an American.

But then another newspaper article put a real damper on those feelings. It was about a Florida woman who had been injured during a holiday sale. She’d been standing in line to buy a DVD player. When the sale began, she was knocked to the ground and trampled by frenzied shoppers, even though her sister tried to keep people from walking on her. The short article concluded, “Paramedics… found her unconscious on top of a DVD player, surrounded by shoppers seemingly oblivious to her.”

So which picture of America is true America the cooperative, generous and kind? Or America the greedy and self-centered?

Well, of course, both are true. To those who’d insist that not everybody would behave as those shoppers did, I would respond that neither do the vast majority of Americans cook and distribute food for the needy.

We are both these things. Just as Iraqis are both these things, and Israelis and Palestinians are both these things, and even the French are both these things.

But lately America’s been beating its chest about how good and selfless we are; about how right we are because we are Americans. Like everybody else, we have our dark side. Maybe if we keep this in mind, we’ll be a little more cautious as we venture into the world. Maybe we’ll remind ourselves that just being American doesn’t necessarily guarantee that we’ll do the right thing.

This is Nick Boke in Weathersfield, Vermont.

Nick Boke is a literacy consultant and free-lance writer who lives in Weathersfield.

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