In his classic 1974 single Annie’s Song, the late John Denver drew vivid portraits of nature to describe his love for his wife, Annie:
“You fill up my senses like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in spring time
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean”
The poetry reaches its climax with “Come let me love you, Come love me again.” If ever there was ever an American song to make you appreciate love and senses in life’s sadder moments, it’s Annie’s Song.
Reflecting upon First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention, memories of Annie’s Song came flooding back, precisely because the “American spirit” the First Lady was describing went in the polar opposite direction of the spirit of Annie’s Song.
Speaking about the American spirit of “service and sacrifice” Michelle Obama told the convention, “I’ve seen it in our men and women in uniform and our proud military families…in wounded warriors who tell me they’re not just going to walk again, they’re going to run, and they’re going to run marathons.”
All right, so maybe her husband did not turn out to be the peacemaker many Americans had hoped he would be, but certainly, using her platform before the nation to give praise to paralyzed soldiers confident they will walk again, one could set aside the disappointments and simply appreciate the indomitable American spirits of the wounded soldiers Michelle Obama spoke of. Then came the stunner, sordid and twisted as it was revelatory about our times.
Mrs. Obama said she found the American spirit, “in the young man blinded by a bomb in Afghanistan who said, simply, ‘…I’d give my eyes 100 times again to have the chance to do what I have done and what I can still do.’
How did one’s sacrifice of one of their senses, in this case sight, for a war that most Americans want absolutely nothing to do with, come to define the “American spirit” itself, at least according to the First Lady of the United States?
The senses, like rights themselves, come from the Creator, however one chooses to define the Creator. The senses are sacred, a choreography designed by God not only to guide our way in the world, but to enable us to witness the majesty of creation – mountains in springtime, deep blue oceans, John Denver’s voice and guitar.
That any grown man or woman, a political figure or not, would characterize a young man’s loss of one of his senses through violence, in this case war, as anything other than a profound tragedy is deeply disturbing.
We have all known or know of people who have been dealt the horrible blow of losing one of their senses, from natural occurrences, accidents, or through violence, and who then manage, both practically and psychologically, to triumph over the loss. The life story of Helen Keller epitomizes that triumph.
The young soldier Michelle Obama referenced in her convention speech certainly has every right to conclude that the war in Afghanistan was worth the loss of his sight, and still is worth that loss – a hundred times over. It ought to go without saying that neither that soldier, nor Michelle Obama, has any right to actually foist that formulation onto the rest of us and our lives, be we soldiers or not. But unfortunately, in these twisted times, from a cultural standpoint, it is no longer so clear-cut.
While not deliberately foisting the sight-for-war spirit onto us, without question, Michelle Obama, as First Lady of the United States, intended to give her imprimatur to that very spirit, and by extension the president’s as well.
Americans would do well to think more deeply before applauding, let alone embracing, this kind of imprimatur.
The question must be asked: Is the very definition of what we call the American spirit undergoing a major transformation right before our eyes, owing precisely to the hemorrhaging violence at home and abroad? It certainly seems that way, and it certainly seems that intrinsic to this new American spirit is the idea that Creator-given senses are a fair trade for personal and national pride.
In the last century, one American legend, John Denver, utilized his senses to the fullest, and in so doing elevated the consciousness of all who heard him bearing witness to the profundity of creation and the human experience. Another American legend, Helen Keller, stripped of her senses by nature, overcame her obstacles and bore witness to the profundity of creation and the human experience by becoming a peace and human rights activist.
The American spirit that defined those two American legends of the last century is, frankly, being replaced by a spirit of belligerence and pride, even stupidity.
Shifts in cultural trends, or spirits, take time. Here’s a good test for whether you have adopted the new American spirit:
Are you more emotionally moved by the tears of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ congressional colleagues as they talk about her progress after the Tucson massacre than you are frustrated with their constant kowtowing to the N.R.A. and its followers? If so, chances are you have already adopted the new American spirit articulated by Michelle Obama: namely, looking for valor in the violence suffered by others, all while accepting the same legal, constitutional, and cultural frameworks that led to the violence in the first place.
The new American spirit is, in a word, senseless. Indeed, it takes an awful lot of senselessness to valorize the needless death of the senses.