Patriotism Means Having Empathy For Your Fellow Americans
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My Responsibility As An American Is To Respect All Americans

Patriotism is a complicated and unending task that goes beyond burgers in July and American flag tank tops

Sad man

"Ain't I just the same as you?"

I was 9 when I first heard those words. Before our trip to Chicago, my mother had taught me not to stare at the homeless. That there's nothing you can do to help and it's best to just leave them alone. But there was nothing that could prepare me for the man that lay hunched on the ground, arms severed at the shoulders, shaking an empty McFlurry cup at passerby with his bloody and cracked feet. His eyes were blacker than any I had seen in my life and the yellow that surrounded them only made them look more piercing.

I had to stare. Was this man even human? He wasn't like any human I had ever seen. Having been raised in a nice, quiet, upper-middle-class community, I had never been exposed to such lives. He saw me make eye contact with him and shook his cup harder. Anything helps, he told me. I looked away and clung closer to my mother that walked ever farther ahead.

"C'mon honey, don't look away. I know you see me. Ain't I just the same as you?"

And indeed there was very little difference between us. In the end, we all get buried under dirt and stone. How big the stone and how pretty the dirt makes little difference to us. We all bleed red, from my father who makes $100,000 a year working for an international company, to my uncle who has struggled with addiction all his life and now works as a construction worker with an alimony and child support payments and showed up drunk to my grandmother's funeral.

My grandfather hangs his purple heart proudly in his living room, but is wracked with a constant wheezing cough from his years after the service spent paving roads and applying road sealant to cracks. He tells me the story of how he was dragged two miles to safety after being shot in the leg by another wounded soldier he didn't even know who had just had his hand blown clean off, but when I ask him where that wounded soldier is now and if he made it out alive he just shrugs and looks away.

There is no one American, just like there is no one soldier or teacher or brother. A drug addict can love his country just as much as a CEO, and the fact that someone struggles to pay rent each month does not less of an American make.

America is not just red, white and blue, it's purple and orange and green as well. It is our black brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors that can't stand for the pledge, or if they do, they fall silent when it comes to the line "liberty and justice for all" because they know that that "all" does not apply to them. It is the immigrants that come to our country by planes or boat or foot, legal or not, with the intention of spending the rest of their life serving a country that will never truly serve them back.

Thomas Paine said, "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it." Having to overcome struggles does not make you less of an American, but not having respect for those who might not have been as lucky as you does.

My responsibility as an American isn't just to stand for the pledge, to hang the flag the right side up, to recognize the sacrifice our veterans have made for us, it is to stand for the Americans who have been crippled by injury or disease, to hang the flag low enough that it can be seen by those who haven't had the fortune to stand on stools as high as me and to recognize the sacrifice that not just our veterans, but also our teachers, our garbage collectors and secretaries have made for us as well because they are just as much of an integral part of America as I am.

I chatted with one of the janitors at my high school a few years back and listened as he told me what amounted to his life story. He was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio to a family that had been struggling for generations. He joined the army in 2006 and served one tour of duty in Afghanistan and was praised for breaking out of the clutches of poverty. But when he got out he had nothing once again.

Day in and day out he just patiently ignores the students that throw bits of food and crumpled up paper at him. That laugh as they plaster their gum to the undersides of their desks for him to scrape off. All he can do is ignore it because he knows that he has to feed his two-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, whose favorite thing in life is elephants and wants to be a ballerina when she grows up. As he talks to me he asks.

"But aren't me and you pretty much the same?"

And this time I have an answer.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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