Well, it’s official. I’ve signed my will and formally acknowledged my inevitable death. Informally, however, I knew my days were numbered more than 60 years ago when I was 8 years old.
At that time, I was enjoying the illusion of being the star of my own lifelong running film. I debuted as mother’s darling baby. My first words drew mad applause; my first steps, rave reviews. A cast of extras adored me from the shadows of my spotlight, and everyone in my orbit conspired to fulfill my every desire.
But one evening, as I searched the sky for a special star to wish upon, more and more stars emerged from black space that suddenly seemed endless. In that Copernican moment, I realized I was not the center of the world but a bit of floating stardust. The fourth wall of my imagined world vanished, and I realized for the first time that I actually existed and would one day die. But this reality was too frightening for me to face. So, I chose to ignore it for the next 60 years and remain a star, if only in my own mind.
Coincidentally or not, my self-deceiving illusion seems strikingly similar to my country’s self-aggrandizing mythology. America, too, has long cast itself as the star of the world. In its romantic conception of itself, America calls itself “exceptional” among nations, and a shining beacon of freedom and democracy that attracts the world’s poor, tired, huddled masses to attain the American Dream: an equal opportunity to become whoever and whatever they desire, i.e., to be stars themselves.
But when America’s reality has belied its mythic conceptions, many fearful citizens regress into its heroic narratives like a frightened child into a fairy tale. Perhaps it explains why the idea of being “woke” to America’s history of injustice provokes in some a childish fear and outrage that prompts the building of a literal and political wall to keep out those poor, tired, and huddled masses we once generously welcomed. To protect our stardom means keeping potential competitors out of our spotlight. To some, it means “winning” by any means necessary, including cheating, fighting, and lying on our national stage to deny losing.
This denial of reality seems so engrained in the fabric of our present society that many parents wish to wrap their children’s minds in the same inherited myths that have perpetuated injustice and inequality through our history: George Washington never told a lie; Benjamin Franklin harnessed electricity; Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves; America won WWI and II—That’s all folks! Just give us the highlights and the thrill of victory. Spare us our injustices and the agony of defeat.
Indeed, some Americans consider it unpatriotic to teach children that the Founding Fathers were also wealthy slaveowners that considered women property; that generations of Americans dispossessed native Americans of their land and rights by both force and deception; that more than a 150 after the Civil War, Black Americans still suffer the cumulative effects of slavery and ongoing racial discrimination; that generations of Americans have been born into regressive social, educational, and historical traps with little opportunity to escape; that America has a history of imperialism and propping up dictatorships; that some American citizens still believe America is a white nation threatened by other races that have no right to demand equality under the law.
And denying our responsibility for healing the wounds of slavery and racism because we, personally, were neither slave holders or racists is like denying our responsibility to slow climate change and reduce pollution because our personal carbon footprint is relatively small; or denying responsibility for mass shootings of children and other innocent people because we personally haven’t pulled the trigger; or denying centuries of sexism because we personally think we’ve not been adversely affected.
The poet John Donne reminds us of the arrogance of such a perspective: “No man is an island unto itself. Each is a part of the continent… Do not ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
So, with the writing of my will, the bell tolls undeniably for me. I find nothing romantic or heroic about planning my own death. In fact, while wills conventionally involve the distribution of possessions to loved ones, or to heartfelt causes, or to preserve one’s memory or legacy for posterity; I wonder if, in general, they aren’t more like a public address announcement for a cleanup on aisle five.
Unless we are part of the wealthiest 1% of Americans, most of our leavings may be considered a burden to unload rather than a treasure to preserve. So maybe instead of trying to preserve or pass along my personal footprint, I may do my best to erase or diminish it while I can. It’s a cleanup job better performed, not as the star of a childish illusion but as a humbled servant to those that follow.
So, maybe it’s time America writes its own will, if only to wake itself from its starstruck dreams to the messy truths of its collective history– while its children still have a democracy and a living earth to inherit.
Thomas Cangelosi is a retired teacher from Avon.