In their later years, with little provocation, my parents would perform their “better days” riff. It would begin with one of them saying, “Things were better when we were young.” They’d go back and forth for a while affirming and embellishing that statement, until finally one of them would shrug and say, “Well, I guess things were better as long as you were white, Christian, and maybe a few other things.” And they’d shake their heads and there it would end, at least until the next time.
Even in their regret for a time when the world felt safer to them, they had a generosity of spirit that allowed them to see that things weren’t better back then for everyone. They missed those days when their lives really were simpler—if not without hardship, including depression and war—but they also understood that by chance they enjoyed advantages which—also by chance—others lacked.
The greatness of the American experiment in freedom lies in setting a glorious ideal of liberty and justice for all, then continuing to do what’s necessary to include anyone who’s been left out. It’s never been perfect, and maybe it never will be. But patriotism isn’t about pretending that it is. It’s the ongoing commitment to honor the ideal by aspiring to achieve it.