This past weekend I took my family back to my hometown to watch a rodeo. This was my youngest son’s first rodeo experience, and he liked both the clowns and the “jumping cows”. (I’m sure the bulls would be even more ferocious if they knew that they were being described in such a way.)
I enjoy seeing the familiar faces and take comfort in the constancy of the area. Returning to my childhood community I can attend a rodeo that has been held yearly for a century, in a town with buildings even older, and at fair park facilities that go back generations. The sense of community and belonging is palpable.
I entered a rodeo once (and if you know me, you know how absurd that is). I rode a bull in the very arena that we watched the bull riders this weekend. It was my only rodeo, and I dominated that bull for the full 8 seconds. I decided that this rodeo business was too easy, that I would seek my physical challenges elsewhere.
Ok, it wasn’t exactly a rodeo. It was a Little Buckaroo. I was 8. And the bull that I rode wasn’t really a bull. It was a very large calf. And by calf I mean sheep. But it was the meanest sheep you have ever, ever seen. They named her White Lightening. Or White Chocolate. Or Creampuff. The name doesn’t matter. What matters is this: I rode her.
I still think I made it the full 8 seconds, but the stopwatch didn’t agree. It might have been broken. I only remember the first real buck, or maybe a violent kick. Ok, she lurched.
It happened just as we cleared the chute (I was thankful that I wasn’t going to hit that metal gate), and then I remember being shocked at how fast the earth was approaching. The one really positive thing about this experience was my short walk of shame – after I dusted myself off, I think I took three whole steps to exit the arena.
No more rodeo for me. I’m just a spectator now.
But this post is less about my humiliation, and more about our communities, the meaning of loyalty, and the stories that bind us. Stories that we create, but also stories that we adopt. Stories that matter, stories that give us a shared sense of history and meaning.
This weekend we watched a stirring patriotic performance from a precision riding team – a dozen or so riders on horseback, carrying American flags, displaying superior riding skills and dedication to the team. It was beautiful.
I am a patriotic person. I am thankful to be an American. I love the celebrations, the barbecues, the fireworks and the rich history that we share, as part of this larger community, this larger movement, we call a nation. But this particular patriotic celebration turned sour.
A narrator related a rather long story that purported to be the real story behind the national anthem. It was overly dramatic, sometimes corny, and quickly turned into a distastefully excessive appeal to emotion. Worse, it did violence to the real history, a story that is inspiring without any attempts to ramp it up with counterfeit gravitas.
I’ll spare you the details, (you can listen to a version here) but the story centered around Francis Scott Key’s experience in writing the Star Spangled Banner. Rather than relating the compassion and honor of Dr. Beanes, rather than relating Key’s efforts to free him through negotiation, and rather than relating the experience of three men aboard a sloop keeping watch that long night, this story became one of martyrs and super-heroic actions. It included black and white descriptions of the evil British fleet shelling a fort full of women and children. It described an absolute slaughter as the fathers inside the fort stepped forward, one by one, to personally hold up the colors, as they were being shredded by the British bombardment. It ended with a description of the Star Spangled Banner flying in the morning light, breaking the will of the British fleet, and being held up by dozens of bodies of patriots piled up around it.
My country is bigger than this. It doesn’t need manufactured or inflated tales to instill pride and loyalty. Such tales are an injustice to the real memory of those who have come before, and they create a false patriotism based upon an impossible standard – a patriotism where fealty does not simply mean loyalty and dedication, but unwavering and unquestioning loyalty. It is propaganda. It is the erection of graven images.
In recent years, in troubling times, we have experienced a dramatic rise in partisanship and inflated rhetoric. Somehow the loudest voices from each side drown out the vast middle. We lose sight of the fact that people of wisdom and good will may disagree, but that those disagreements need not foster resentment or division, or worse yet, expulsion.
Belonging to a group and being loyal to that group requires not only fealty, but also a mature trust that our shared history and our commonalities are sufficient to bind us without resorting to inflated fiction, and without requiring unrealistic demands. It requires a willingness to trust one another, to engage in our differences, and to wrestle in mutual integrity to serve each other and our community. Such an engagement requires patience, it requires effort, and it requires respect. But ultimately, such an engagement refines us, refines our community, and helps our communities to live.
It’s a more difficult path, to be sure. It might seem desirable, or somehow more pure, to belong to a community without division. But such a community would lack the ability to stimulate growth, without which our communities would ultimately be less. And so would we.