Let’s Mutually Pledge to Help One Another

I love Christmas. For religious reasons, for family reasons, but also because of the wonderful spirit at this time of year. This is the season when we celebrate sharing and caring for others. Every year, like many others, I wonder why we can’t sustain that throughout the next 12 months.

Recently, I have had a feeling that during the rest of the year, there has been a decline in our sense of community, our involvement with others. More and more, many of us seem to act as if there has to be a choice between individualism and community.

I believe that America was built on the rights and responsibilities of each of us as individuals. Those rights are enshrined in the Bill of Rights. After all, while many of our ancestors came to the United States to escape the repression of tyrannical and discriminatory governments, many also came to seek and find economic opportunity, because “the streets were paved with gold.”

Rugged individualism is very much a part of the American experience. But that tradition of looking out for yourself has always been tempered by something equally important — the sense that you also have a responsibility to your community and your fellow human beings.

When Americans were conquering the frontier, they depended on their own wits and labor to build individual family farms.

They were proudly independent. But when a neighbor was raising a barn, something no single family could do on their own, those rugged individuals came together to help.

Clearly this dual responsibility is reflected in the words of our founders in the Declaration of Independence.

They beautifully expressed the importance of the rights of individuals when they said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But they went on to give an equally important pledge: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

“Mutually pledge.” Ben Franklin summed it up best in those perilous days when, after signing the Declaration, he wrote, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.”

We all see and admire that sense of interdependence among our troops in harm’s way. But more and more, I have a hard time finding it in the tone and content of our political discourse — not just in Dover or Washington, but everywhere else.

Is it more difficult to be concerned about others during these hard economic times, when your primary worry is losing your job or your house?

Absolutely, but the stories my parents told me about the Great Depression of the 1930s made it clear that Americans then had a real sense that they were all in the same boat.

As terrible as those years were, this was also the decade when we worked together to build some of our greatest dams and bridges.

Americans have a long history of surpassing all other countries in their community involvement. Alexis De Tocqueville said, after his tour of the United States in 1831, “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.”

Clearly, the depressed economy today has reduced the volume of money being given this year to practically all charities. But there are some wonderful signs that we haven’t lost the spirit of Christmas.

In fact, there are reports of a new way some of us are displaying it. Individual good Samaritans across the country are showing up at stores and paying off balances on other people’s layaway plans to assure that there are presents under the tree for those who are having trouble making their payments.

That’s Americans, and the Christmas spirit, at their best.

Let’s hope we can do a better job in the coming year of reconciling our precious individualism with the sense of community that has also been an important part of this country’s greatness.

Originally published 24 Dec 2011 on delawareonline.com