I never saw my dad drink a drop of alcohol.
My family members, fundamentalist Christians, were deeply opposed to the bottle. I was raised to believe that teetotaling was the only proper path. But Dad slurred his words a lot of evenings and behaved in ways that just seemed weird.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been shocked when my mother announced Dad was heading to rehab when I was 17 years old, but I was. We joined him for a week as a family exercise.
I’d swallowed the “religion” thing whole, attending church every Sunday morning and night, every Wednesday night for prayer meeting, and every Friday night for youth group, as the evil in this world “out there” was renounced. But the moment I heard my mother’s news, I realized the darkness of deceit, lies and escapism had been lurking in our own home. In my own father. Maybe even in me?
While the rehab center was fine by the standards of 1983, for this high school senior, the path prompted more questions than answers.
There, I was educated on the psychology of birth order in families of addiction. As much as I hated to admit it, I was a poster child for the oldest sibling. Suddenly, I wondered if my goal-oriented perfectionism was really just a twist of fate. Did I even have choices?
The experience shook me to my core. Even though I’d believed that getting into an Ivy League school was a major achievement, it suddenly felt hollow. It seemed I was fated for the path, programmed by my birth order to do no other than achieve. While this was a huge educational opportunity for a working-class kid, I couldn’t take advantage of it without truly knowing who I was.
Way before anyone talked about taking a gap year between high school and college, I decided not to enroll for classes at Penn. Instead, I bought a bus ticket and headed out onto the highways. Before the age of cell phones, the Internet and constant communication, I put my savings, a little over $1,000, into my pocket and boarded a Greyhound. I didn’t care where it took me. I just needed to go.
I was gone for 9 months and traversed 10,000 miles via bus and hitchhiking, living on five dollars a day. Even those words—bus and hitchhiking—seem outdated in the era of Uber and hyper-vigilance.
But I’m not interested in a call back to a hazy goodness of the past that never really existed (especially since those “good old days” like the 1950s were rarely good for marginalized Americans). In the pages to come, I’d like to evoke principles older than Happy Days and I Love Lucy and more enduring than This Is Us. While I’ll recall the evidence of our shared values in the music, sports and other events we celebrate together, I’d like to ultimately highlight the common principles that animated the greatest traditions and societies in history—from ancient Greece to remote tribes to modern America—principles that can still empower us beyond our differences today. Coupled with new scientific findings and undeniable social progress in some areas, these principles can change your life and mine. They might even change the world.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When I was living in my small town, I dreamed of the great vistas of America, principally through my passion for all sports, movies, books and music. I would watch whatever sport I could watch on the networks and read whatever book or article I could read; through them I’d dream of the worlds my heroes inhabited, like the great Walt “Clyde” Frazier, one of the earliest trendsetting superstars. He’d wear fur coats and drive Rolls-Royces while winning NBA Championships with the New York Knicks. Clyde’s beautiful game and cosmopolitan life transported me to the world of NYC, along with “Heaven is a Playground”, Rick Telander’s journalistic masterpiece describing the City’s urban playgrounds where some of basketball’s legends came from, and where could-have-been legends fell prey to the ravages of the streets.
With my own pop culture montage reeling in my head, I set off to see this great country I dreamed of, to find what was real “out there” and to discover what was real about myself.
Only seventeen and on the road alone, I dipped a toe in the Atlantic and headed west toward the Pacific. I experienced the grandeur of our national monuments in D.C., the neon electricity of Manhattan, the cobblestone history of Philadelphia, the down-home goodness of the heartland, and the new-world-promise of California. I found along the way the playgrounds that were heavens, and the great American fields of dreams. With the soundtrack of America ringing in my ears, I played ball on Manhattan’s famous 4th Street courts and sought out the Bronx of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5, trying to breathe in the line: “It’s like a jungle sometimes / I t makes me wonder / If I think I am going under”.
I visited the rock quarries of Bloomington, Indiana, where the cutters of the film Breaking Away swam and then I secretly slept at half court in Indiana University’s renowned Assembly Hall. I woke up wanting to “sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream” with Bruce Springsteen. I naively tried to “look back on when I was a little nappy-headed boy” with Stevie Wonder and understand “what’s going on” with Marvin Gaye, while receiving a daily education (including the loss of my two front teeth) on the magical Venice Beach basketball courts in Los Angeles. As I traveled to each new place, I continued “calling out in transit” with R.E.M and wondering “how does it feel to be out on your own…like a rolling stone?” with Bob Dylan.
I never once paid for accommodations. I stayed in men’s shelters, in parks, on a bench outside the Smithsonian, and on the couches of the amazing and generous people I met. My up-close encounter with this great, complicated country started a head-over-heels love affair.
I saw that America, in all of its complexity, is charming, mysterious and lovely. It is filled with beautiful and broken people just like me, people of every color of skin, young and old, rich and poor, with ideals spanning from the most liberal socialism to the most ardent conservativism. And while our dreams are as diverse as our personal experience, we remain bonded over our deepest hopes and longings.
In discovering this, I mysteriously began to discover myself. I began to see a place for me in this wide world—as a unique individual with something to offer, and, as a vibrant thread woven into the huge, rich tapestry of humanity.
Much has changed about America, and me, since that 1980s journey.
The nation I used to know has morphed into something that would’ve been unrecognizable to me back in the era of Ronald Reagan’s optimism and the curious clarity of having one seemingly sole adversary in the world (the Soviet Union, of course) in the Cold War.1
Death and despair are on the march. There were 150,000 deaths of despair (suicide, drug overdose and alcohol-related deaths) in the US last year alone. When we aren’t killing ourselves, we are killing each other in tragic ways. One recent 24-hour period sadly illustrates this. On the morning of August 3, 2019, a gunman opened fire in a crowded shopping center in El Paso, Texas, killing 20 people and injuring 26 more. Thirteen hours later and 1,600 miles away, another gunman opened fire on a crowd outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio, killing 9 people and leaving 27 injured. While these men had nearly opposite views of the societal ills prompting them to lash out in such violent ways, they seemingly shared the same psychological afflictions.
While thanks be to God, the great majority of us do not feel so afflicted as to be suicidal or criminally pathological, in every demographic we feel more anxious, depressed, lonely, alienated and divided than ever before. As a nation, we may have never felt as hostage to fear and pain and certainly never in times as prosperous and peaceful as this. It seems there’s no end in sight. The 2020 election cycle will likely lengthen the shadow of darkness and division no matter who wins. If the past is any indication, our political leaders will offer solutions that will not only fail to heal our brokenness; they may finally split us wide open.
Rarely have we felt so pitted against each other—on matters big and small. In fact, nothing is too trivial to divide us and we’re not getting better.
We’re rich but bothered.
We’re comfortable but in anguish.
The great American experiment is failing.
I’ve felt this cultural angst myself, in my own family and with my own friends. We have dealt with addiction, depression and anxiety, losing loved ones to their battles, which makes us like just about everybody. I’ve found myself having conversations I never anticipated when I was growing up—negotiating the consequences of severe addictions and selfish decisions, the repercussions of toxic faith, and the backlash of damaged relationships.
Perhaps like you, I have continued trying to locate myself, my story and my potential contributions across the full range of the American experience. After my journey for the better part of a year, I did move from my working-class background to an Ivy League school, followed by another Ivy League law school. At Penn, I met my future wife, Jean, a wonderful woman born into a family of Chinese-American immigrants. I also joined Penn’s Gospel Choir as the only white guy among the seventy-five or so members. I then pledged Alpha Phi Alpha, the first black fraternity where MLK, Jesse Owens, and many other American heroes pledged, and where I was once again the only white member. Far from my fundamentalist church upbringings, I looked for fellowship and community in Evangelical, Lutheran, African-Methodist Episcopal, Church of God in Christ, Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Vineyard, Baptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic churches, and even across Jewish and Muslim divides.
I made the most of the steppingstones created by my Penn and Harvard degrees; my business career brought me more wealth, prosperity and status than I had ever dreamed possible. Because I love America and all of the benefits it has afforded me, I’ve tried to give back. I’ve spent millions creating organizations that support our military and their families, partnering with organizations that provide “ladder of success” opportunities for those who have been left behind, and building organizations focused on intergenerational virtue transfer; I’ve helped create one of the world’s largest religious and faith-oriented websites; and I’ve worked with teams to make films, some of them even successful.
If you are curious …These aren’t the kind of films that open on thousands of screens and in a cineplex near you, but rather smaller budget films in the independent film world. This includes a number of different narrative feature films (And Then I Go (2017) and This is the Year (expected 2020 release)), as well as documentary efforts (Game Changers (2018), More Art Upstairs (2017) and an upcoming documentary on Henri Nouwen (expected 2020 release)). The most successful was 2014’s Mitt, which had the prime opening slot at Sundance Film Festival and was one of the first of Netflix original content offerings.
Most recently, I ran for United States Senate in the great commonwealth of Massachusetts.
And in a way, I feel lost again, and as unsettled as ever before. As I have seen in speaking with thousands of people at hundreds of events over the last three years, this makes me like so many fellow citizens in my state and our country.
Now I find myself realizing that perhaps there’s nothing I can offer to our nation other than my desperate desire for it to work out. While I care deeply for every nation, America is, after all, the only place where I live. It is the only place I can touch every day. But truth be told, the world is better when America is strong. Really, the world can’t have peace and prosperity if America is wobbling on internal polarization and insecurity.
In the Second World War, we locked arms and faced down the Nazis and an imperialist Japan. In the aftermath, despite internal tension, we welcomed our veterans back and then wrestled to achieve equality for all Americans. After 9/11, we sang on the steps of the Capitol and we doubled down against Islamic jihadism.
I don’t think we’d stand next to each other and sing if our buildings were falling down around us. Because they are, and we don’t.
Still, I don’t want to be skeptical. Deep down, I’m hoping that somehow, together, we can restore what’s been lost in our collective national soul.
We won’t find healing in Washington, or through the institutions and powers of this world. Though we feel ill-equipped for the moment, we have to rise together, or we will fall apart. The world is depending on us. We are depending on us. The good news is that, if our history is any clue, we can and will figure out our cultural challenges, and we will be OK. We can and will get this right. As long as “we” remains a key.
Though the days are indeed dark, the opportunity for an awakening is great; it can start here and now and bring us to a new understanding and experience of life that is truly living, as we were meant to live––individually empowered, collectively strengthened. This begins when we decide that we don’t have to serve each other or a greater good; we get to do so and in doing so we will all receive what we are looking for.
We won’t embrace these principles because we should embrace them. As many experience in hastily beating a retreat from their New Year’s resolutions, it is hardly ever sustainable to do what we “should” do.
It is my hope that because these principles describe who we actually are as individuals, and who we are meant to be together, we will want to embrace them because they will provide us the freedom to experience a life that is truly life.
Excerpted from American Awakening: Eight Principles to Restore the Soul of America.
If you like what you are reading check out American Awakening: Eight Principles to Restore The Soul of America and listen to the American Awakening Podcast, now playing on the Relevant Podcast Network.