Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Canadian/US Relations

We on the American left have for many decades had a certain envy of Canada. We see our neighbor to the north as somehow more pure, less tainted by cynicism, more cooperative with each other, more communal rather than individualistic. We like their more liberal take on politics, we admire their system of Universal Health Care, we yearn for less crime and poverty, and we find their take on life much more live and let live.

So it was that I had a pleasant conversation a Canadian lady with whom I went to undergrad. She is one of the most trusting, kind-hearted, optimistic souls I have ever met. I envy her because I've always seen the glass as half-empty rather than half full. I look at her and wish I could be capable of being everyone's friend. I wish I didn't form all of these judgments about people before I meet them. I wish I wasn't seduced by the dark side. I wish, I wish, I wish.

The last point I'd like to explore in more detail. We Americans are a Puritanical, guarded sort. We are highly judgmental people. I think the paradox intrinsic in Americans is in our world-weary sense of skepticism and in our constant fear of the worst case scenario. Americans are often fear based people. Nothing could be more Jonathan Edwards. Yet, we are super sensitive underneath our hard exteriors. If you strip it away, our guarded behavior is little more than a defense mechanism. We know how much it hurts to be deceived. We know the sting of being injured by a caustic remark. So we build an ego shell around ourselves so formidable that we almost believe it to be genuine and authentic, rather than artifice. We begin to believe our own lies.

Canada didn't fight for its independence. Preferring compromise to revolution, it gradually won full autonomy from Great Britain. It maintains a Parliamentary system of government, which I believe America ought to adopt. The Founding Fathers were so intent on ridding themselves of all traces of their mother country that I believe they threw the baby out with the bathwater in that regard. There's something seductive about revolution and chaos and upheaval. Yet, I find it both thrilling and repelling at the same time. That's why I'm an American.

I know that compromise and delayed gratification aren't nearly as sexy as bombast and instant gratification, but maybe that's where we Americans go wrong. We on the left pander for compromise rather than gunshot, but how many of us wanted blood revenge after terrorists felled two towers of the World Trade Center and crashed a plane into the Pentagon? How many of us would totally renounce our stance against the death penalty if someone whom we dearly loved was killed in an act of senseless violence?

Today's conversation really caused me to question my own motives. Why am I so often seduced by the dark side? What about me has a masochistic streak that finds negativity so simultaneously attractive and repelling? Why can't I go about life the way she does--seeing the good in people rather than assuming the worst? Why not give people the benefit of the doubt? What can it hurt?

Part of this is due to my upbringing, but I see the same sorts of attitudes in most Americans. We're such hyper-individualists in this society, which can be both good and bad. A country founded in rugged individualism often lacks a certain sensitivity to its fellow person. We tend to think that if bad things happen to other people, then they must have done something to deserve it. We're super critical of flaws we find in other people and all we're really saying is that recognize in them our own failings and shortcomings.

We might consider the Canadian too idealistic, too naive, too pie-in-the-sky. We might consider the Canadian easily manipulated. There was a time in my life where I wanted to strip innocence away and reveal life the way it is. I despised those who wore rose-colored glasses. But as I've come to understand through the course of my life is that life is what you make of it. It can be a very good place or a very bad place, but it's all in your perception of it. And in seeking to destroy all that was good about life, I was living my life according to the old maxim that misery loves company.

I know this doesn't apply to all Canadians and I know whomever reads this might comment that he/she has known Canadians with bad attitudes and a judgmental streak a mile wide. I don't think the exception proves the rule. And I know that comparing Canada to America is often like comparing apples with oranges. For starters, they're a fraction of the size we are, population-wise. Furthermore, they live in a society which is not nearly as diverse as ours. They don't call it the Great White North for nothing.

To return to the narrative: in talking to her today, I questioned myself. Why am I so critical? Why am I so guarded? Why do I expect the worst first, rather than giving people the benefit of the doubt? What about me is seduced by negativity, rather than casually dismissing it and instead seeing the world as the good place it can often be.

When I was a Unitarian, I found myself among good company, I thought. We were a motley band of cynics, pessimists, depressives, melancholics, and hand-wringers. Although that was comfortable, I've begun to question whether or not that was healthy. In my own relationships with people, maybe I need to take an example from my Canadian friend and be more open-minded and less apt to believe in self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, thinking this way only keeps me upset. Maybe I need to surround myself with positive people, rather than the people I chose for most of my life to be my closest confidants who although they had a heart of gold and good intentions, lived life expecting to be hurt.

This is true not just of Unitarians but also of Americans, but I find this outlook especially true to UUs.

I'm tired of being Chicken Little. All it does it keep me upset and edgy. Maybe it wouldn't hurt me to be a tad more trusting. After all, what do I have to lose? Maybe life is meant to be enjoyed, after all.

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