I love the 4th of July. From the nostalgia I feel for our family rituals from my childhood to the timeless tradition of oohing and aahing as fireworks light up the sky, it’s an amazing day. I love the way that parades are for every0ne, even tiny kids on tricycles. I love pool parties, flag waving, baseball, concerts, and sparklers. I love beer, watermelon, hot dogs, and potato salad. I love taking a moment to be grateful for the privilege of living here, and for the hardships our country has endured to get where we are now. Ultimately, I love the ways communities come together with their neighbors to celebrate. Where other holidays are very family focused, the 4th of July is more like family plus. It’s a day where it feels like we’re all part of one big red, white, and blue family.
This year we got to join in the festivities of our new hometown of Fort Collins, CO. I had read in the local newspaper, The Coloradoan, that this town “flocks” to City Park for fireworks so we decided to join in the migration. We were surprised, although maybe we shouldn’t have been, to find that the newspaper wasn’t kidding. It truly felt like the WHOLE town was out and on their way to the park. We saw bikers in droves, even miles away from the park itself. As we got closer, we joined streams of pedestrians that turned into rivers, spilling off the sidewalks and into the streets all to reach the park before dark. As we wove our way through the masses, I found a bit of my patriotic enthusiasm waning.
To be honest, people were drunk and, perhaps, not the best versions of themselves in those moments. From the college kids chanting from the rooftops to the high school girls in their tiny shorts and bikini tops on the streets, it seemed like people had been way over served. Once we got to the park, I was astounded with the continued shenanigans. I saw a two year old wielding a sparkler in a crowd (never mind that they are illegal inside city limits) and a din of nonsensical banter/yelling sprinkled liberally with swear words. Teens looked up from their phones briefly as they wove their way through the crowds that had set up “camp” on blankets, seeming deftly focused on connecting with friends who were similarly phone-bound in the park. As I saw with my husband and waited for the fireworks, I felt like a grumpy old woman, internally scowling at “kids these days.”
As a former educator and current mediator/facilitator I was perplexed. As a teacher, there were VERY few students I didn’t like. While some drove me crazy with bad habits or skill deficits, I found 99.5% of them to be genuinely good human beings. In my work, now I genuinely tend to really like my clients. However different they are, I find that in listening deeply to them, compassion overwhelms my annoyance with any of their funny ticks and we end up getting along swimmingly. How then, could I be sitting in the park with several thousand of my neighbors, and be so annoyed with them? Would I like them if I had met them in a different context? Was I perhaps only noticing the “standouts” of bad behavior and overlooking the literal sea of wonderful locals? I tried to consciously shift my focus to see the bigger, less critical, more positive picture just as someone behind us yelled “‘merica!” Sheesh!
Thankfully, the fireworks started soon and the crowd settled into a (mostly) unified gaze skyward. The family who had settle down in front of us got cozy on their blanket; the wife resting her head on her husband’s torso and the kids lined up in a two-kid train beside them. A little boy behind us gave running commentary of the whole show, gleefully declaring “They’ll never run out of that kind!” and, “This should go forever!” with each wave of overhead explosions. A few people still trickled through the crowd, seeking out friends or trying to beat the masses to leave, but the vast majority of us were focused on the spectacle above and simply content.
As we left that night, I was amazed again and the throngs of people but I found myself less critical, more delighted with them. I noticed the sheer number of families toting blankets and picnics. I noticed many languages on the breeze and was grateful for the international flavor of our nationalistic celebration. I noticed couples walking hand in hand and laughter sprinkled throughout. Even when cars and motorcycles loudly pushed their way through the crowds of pedestrians, I found myself appreciating the ways that people parted, paused, and then continued on, not letting a few rude motorists spoil their evening.
In the coming months, I hope to be ever more the type of person I was after the fireworks than I was before. I hope to be a person who sees the good in people and lets the bad pass through. As I look at the negative feelings I felt towards people on the way to the park, I realize the ways I framed their behavior, and my judgement of it, was both unfair and counterproductive. In a different context, I think I would find that if I had paused, instead of jumping to critical conclusions, I would have found much to like about those individuals, and better understood the choices they were making. More broadly, as I think about what it means to be an American, I realize our deep need for tolerance, patience, and grace. If we run around criticizing others for what they are not, we cannot appreciate them for what they are. Similarly, if we let our differences divide us, we overlook all the ways in which we are indeed the same. In working with people to resolve life’s wicked problems, we need to have a deep understanding of and respect for one anothers’ differences AND, we need not get so caught up in those differences that we lose sight of our common humanity.