Twenty-some years ago, I wrote my master’s thesis on the topic of the Fourth of July. As a student of the history of the American West, I looked at how different communities celebrated this national holiday in 1876, the centennial celebration of the birth of the United States. The dominant historical narrative suggested that communities were created from the spirit of the “rugged individualism” that sent white settlers out west in search of land, and given that some of the regions were not even yet part of the United States, having not yet declared statehood, I was curious to see if people identified with a “national” holiday, or how they self-identified when it came to this day of celebration.
One hundred and forty-four years ago in the American West, some communities were nothing more than places where miners had gathered in search of gold, and a few entrepreneurial-minded individuals had begun offering services and supplies that began to create some semblance of social community. Communities on the western coastline were already melting pots, created with strong Spanish, Mexican, and Native American influences (in California) and Chinese and Japanese immigrants (in the Pacific Northwest).
Even when I wrote my thesis, which was not that long ago really, the dominant historical references and resources told one story : the story of the white male. “Rugged individualism” was the dominant narrative that “settled the west.” Humans of other genders and ethnicities were objects to be conquered or leveraged in pursuit of the goal, whether it be gold, freedom, or land ownership. The story of the west was one of establishing dominance, claiming property, and creating profit.
Just days before the U.S. Centennial Celebration in 1876, the Battle of the Little Bighorn had taken place in southeastern Montana, becoming memorialized at the time as the heroic “Custer’s Last Stand” – the military officer George Custer of course being the main hero of the story in which white cultural dominance was simply the expected norm. (Part of my research was to determine if this event impacted the way that communities celebrated July 4th, but it turned out to be a moot point since the news of the battle didn’t reach most places until July 5.)
In 1876, the Fourth of July celebrations I studied were primarily local community events, with people gathering for parades, music, and merry-making. (The newspapers and surviving sources primarily reported only the activities of white settlers, so it’s hard to draw a more inclusive picture of what might have gone on.) The exception in my research was Salt Lake City, which, being part of the Mormon state of Deseret at the time and explicitly NOT being part of the United States, opted to not observe or recognize the holiday.
Independence Day was, in 1876, less about celebrating American independence from British rule, and more about people gathering to make merry with their neighbors and have an excuse to create community. While the purpose of the holiday was to observe a nation-centric event, the actual focus of the celebrations I studied was much more local and community-centric.
Today, we are living even deeper complexity as we attempt to define our personal and collective identities.
Our ego-centric selves carry the intergenerational wounding from the past, as well as a deep and profound capacity (even if less reflected in our social structures) for compassion, empathy, and altruism.
At a community level, we struggle to provide adequate care for those who carry the deepest wounding and thus remain marginalized and less privileged due to economic status or mental or physical health conditions.
As a nation, we are just waking up to the colossal impact of the systemic racism we’ve perpetuated.
And simultaneously, we are in the midst of a massive spiritual awakening in which people are beginning to self-identify as interconnected — part of a global world-centric family — or at an esoteric level as all One from a cosmos-centric perspective.
Who are we, really, and what are the stories that we tell that reinforce our sense of identity?
For two thousand years, the dominant narrative has been that of the patriarchy. And right now, we are experiencing a profound rising of the feminine as the intelligent ecosystem of our planet and our species begins to restore balance to the world we’ve created from imbalance – within ourselves and within all of the social structures we’ve created.
Cultural dominance, profit, and property are now up for examination and exploration of what these ways of relating to each other and to the land might look like, should we start to actually think of ourselves as a single evolving organism.
If we really get the precious miraculousness of what it means to be hurtling through space together on a beautiful blue-green paradise called earth, with the very real possibility that with the next virus, the eruption of Yellowstone, or a madman with access to a red button that creates nuclear disaster, we could all be dead tomorrow… how might we relate to each other differently?
The Fourth of July originally was a celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the holiday was created as an opportunity to create a stronger sense of unity and community through celebration, oriented around a nation-centric perspective.
Today, our nation is perhaps more polarized than ever before. Future historians looking back on July 4, 2020, will see a day in which community gatherings were canceled, perhaps for the first time in 200+ years, in favor of social distancing and masks. They’ll see a fragmented, splintered society, divided by fear, desperately seeking leadership, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the social challenges we’re facing, and on the brink of total economic catastrophe. Or will they?
Or, perhaps the stories will be told of the countless acts of kindness, compassion, and service, happening all over the country today, largely unrecognized in the media but a pulsing heartbeat of ever-present love, generosity, and care nonetheless. Perhaps the smallest acts of kindness, the tiny acts of connection, ARE the path that leads to creating community and unity at a systemic level.
Perhaps the systemic breakdown on the surface is simply the large scale economic and social shake-up that, as Leonard Cohen sang, is the crack that allows the light to come in.
Perhaps the spirit of Independence Day is still alive and well, albeit seeking a creative new form as we learn how to explore what true “freedom” really looks like for all of us, individually and collectively.
Perhaps today is a day in which we can acknowledge the limitations and challenges of what has come before, in the ways we’ve habituated ourselves into relating with each other, interpersonally, interracially, interculturally, and intergenerationally and also celebrate that we are enjoying profound freedoms and advances that have come because of these same systems.
Perhaps today is a day in which, like the authors of the Declaration of Independence two hundred years ago, we contemplate the world we wish to live in two hundred years from now, and make a bold declaration that puts that into motion in our own lives, businesses, and communities.
Perhaps today we deepen our capacity to hold multiple perspectives simultaneously, and celebrate that systemic breakdown creates space for emergence – trusting that the painful divisiveness, uncertainty, and fear is catalyzing more and more people into the inquiries that ultimately lead to inspired action, aligned with a broader evolutionary intelligence.
If you could time travel to 150 years in the future and look back on how you experienced July 4, 2020, what would you do today that creates more of the world you wish to see?
We’ve inherited a story, for better or for worse, from the influences that have come before us. We now are the ones writing the new story, with every action we take.
The one thing I learned from writing my master’s thesis all those years ago was this:
Celebration creates community.
Yes, we can be divided, polarized, and scared. But when we come together to celebrate, we tap into a unifying field that transcends discord and allows us to be together IN our differences, but with a shared purpose and meaning.
We may have to get more creative in HOW we celebrate, and certainly may have to look harder for things TO celebrate, but if we are to transcend the “rugged individualism” myth and the past pattern of relating by establishing dominance, we MUST learn to create community more readily, more creatively, and with greater resilience.
Celebration is more than just a frivolous excuse to blow up fireworks or host a barbecue. It’s a critical glue that’s required to repair the fabric of society.
In the words of Alice Walker, hard times call for furious dancing.
Perhaps historians of the future will look back and see 2020 as a turning point — when we began to value celebration, community, and dancing as much as we had collectively valued cultural dominance, profit, and property in the past.
Perhaps future historians will see that the absence of traditional community gatherings in 2020 became a catalyst for creating more of what really matters to the heart of humanity.
Perhaps the way we celebrate and dance today IS “being the change we wish to see”.
May your day be blessed with celebration, connection, and random acts of kindness as we celebrate the many freedoms we already enjoy.