I am a 17-year-old white male, and when I look at the American flag, I see prosperity. I see snow-white ski-runs, where I spend the majority of my winter weekends. I see that same cherry-red hue in the wine I drink at Catholic church on Sundays. I see the oh-so-familiar starry night that gives me pride to call Montana’s Big Sky Country home. I am reminded of my life, as an American, and of every privilege I enjoy, because not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone sees what I do.
When a woman returning home from her third deployment to Afghanistan looks at the American flag, she distinguishes a sense of duty. Following a routine wincing at those blindingly white stripes, a black man frowns at such irony. Immigrants interpret opportunity, politicians perceive power, and toddlers, with the wisest naivety, see only a colorful piece of cloth. There exists no greater representation of the diversity of human experience than the American flag, but today, inhabitants of a country founded upon an unprecedented notion of equality aren’t seeing it that way.
I believe in the power of perspective. Admittedly, my uniquely privileged point of view lends a much rosier hue to that patriotic red. At one point in my life, however, I developed an acute awareness of the reality that not all problems are created equally. I concocted my own theory of relativity: the simple truth being that my daily challenges are almost laughably trivial compared to those of others. As an American, I worry not about the fulfillment of my basic needs, or the capability of my voice to be heard, or the discouraging finality of my ethnicity or religion. When I wake up in the morning, I thank God that I can blink my eyes, and wiggle my toes, and swing my legs so easily and independently out of my safe, warm bed.
Still, like anything worth having, such good fortune does come at a cost. Yes, I have ears that hear and eyes that see, but all-too-often my senses are inundated with the sad recognition of a lack of perspective in the eyes of those around me. Manifested in a heated debate over the true meaning of our flag, America has developed astigmatism not so-easily corrected by a simple prescription or pair of rose-colored glasses. Far too many Americans– young and old, black and white, rich and poor– suffer an inability to contemplate the mere existence of demons greater than their own, and allow the inevitably resulting gratitude to shape a greater appreciation of the people around them.
When I look at the American flag, I see not only my reflection, but the reflection of the People. I see a reminder that when we pledge our allegiance to that star-spangled banner, we make a promise to each other. I see our collective potential. By appreciating the complexity of a bigger picture, we can sharpen our perspectives and truly appreciate each other’s differences. We can be indivisible.
Photo by Raúl Nájera