Within the first few minutes of meeting someone new in a social setting, I eventually get to my favorite question: "So... how's your love life?" My friends sigh as they've heard me ask this question too many times before, but at the same time they lean in because they too want to know the answer. And just like that, I've either made a fast new friend, or quickly made things awkward. Luckily, it's almost always the former.
As fun as asking that question is, I'm starting to think there's another question we should all be asking instead, "So... how's your love life... with your country?" Because the reality is, for far too many of us, our relationship with citizenship is of the unhealthy unreciprocated love type -- we expect and feel entitled to rights, but shy away from the responsibilities. Citizenship in America, for all intents and purposes, has become "maybe voting and having to pay taxes." We donate to a few causes we care about, and occasionally sign an online petition, but we throw our hands up in defeat when it comes to tackling the big issues facing our country.
Luckily the Americans who came before us took making our country great more seriously, allowing us to enjoy and take those rights for granted today. Assuming our country will continue to be great without our continued investment in it won't make it so. The American Promise is built upon the concept of each generation paying it forward to the next -- we owe it to those who will follow us to keep our country awesome, and in an ideal world -- hand it off to them better than we received it.
Changing our path won't be easy, but important things rarely are. We can start by lowering the volume of our rhetoric -- who you vote for and how loud you yell doesn't determine your patriotism. We all want our country to be great, we just differ on our preferred strategy to get us there. Let's get to know each other, especially those with different opinions than our own, and talk through the tough questions as friends. A democracy incapable of compromise isn't a democracy.
But citizenship calls for more from of each of us than talk -- it calls us to act. In early America that meant fighting for independence and helping your neighbor raise their barn. Later in our history that meant improving our communities through organizations like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and defending our freedom in world wars. In each of those examples service to one's nation allowed us to accomplish great things we wouldn't have been able to accomplish otherwise; bound us to each other and to our communities; and activated a lifelong commitment to citizenship in those who served.
Many of us have chosen a life of service and head to work each day to serve as firefighters, police officers, teachers, members of the armed forces, government employees and a litany of other noble careers serving the public good -- we salute you and thank you for your service. But that doesn't let the rest of us off the hook -- it's important, both for our personal benefit and the nations, for each of us to have the opportunity to perform meaningful service to our country. Many great national service programs like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and others provide opportunities for citizens to perform a "service year" working to meet important, unmet societal needs. While there are not currently enough service year positions for everyone person to serve, there could be.
Just imagine for a moment how great our country and our citizens could be if doing a service year was something all young people saw as an expected part of the process of growing up, similar to graduating from high school. Let's add service to our common definition of success and continue the tradition of handing the next generation the keys to a better country than we received. It'd be pretty awesome and would make answering the question about how much we love our country a whole lot less awkward.