National cultures are made, not born. When Abraham was asked to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, for example, this defining moment appears in various forms across several religious and cultural stories and continues to shape our contemporary politics.
National cultures last longer than a generation and they depend on the continual interplay of relationships between individuals, groups, institutions, and external cultures that help shape national boundaries and sometimes force them. While not “persons” in the legal sense, national cultures do indeed have identity and are undoubtedly influenced by their beginnings.
On the other hand, there are many other stories that can show powerful influence of a more positive nature, less fraught with gut-wrenching dilemma. Perhaps the time has come to find and share some of these alternative iconic cultural moments. If external events such the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spread of the ebola virus, rise of ISIS and of ISIL as a potential Islamic state, increased need for water and energy, and global warming are insufficient to capture our attention, what about issues closer to home such as police-community relations in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and countless other locations across the U.S.? Who deserves to be educated, housed, employed, and healthy? Which of these contribute to our definitions of ourselves and others in what becomes an expression of our national culture?
National culture is a blueprint that provides the framework for a structure and the opportunity for a choice. That framework should not be confused with the structure itself, any more than a draftsman’s blueprint should be mistaken for a three-dimensional building. National culture offers us moments to decide who we are, to shape ourselves and our projections into the world. There is ample room for choice. In fact, embedded in the power and intensity of culture over time and generations is the responsibility to make continuous choices which ultimately contribute to the flourishing or the demise of that culture.
Nations reach decision points, just as individuals, families and companies do. As we are currently in the throes of what will later come to be known as a Third World War, many nations are facing critical decision points. Leaders arise who reflect (and sometimes shape) the full range of possible cultural expression. Whether through election or coup d’etat, the intensity of collective emotion, belief, and thought determines which leader is chosen, which events occur, and eventually which national persona the culture adopts based on its current shared values. As citizens, we get what we ask for on a conscious or unconscious basis. Do not underestimate the power of individuals and small groups to identify and promote leaders, and to frame leadership in any particular historical moment. There are many crossroads, many potential tipping points: who will we be as a nation in this time? Global political and cultural events are never inevitable in my view, even though blueprints from some deeper level of collective consciousness shape daily life and expression. Events exist to help us make choices, not to resign us to some predetermined fate.
“Destiny” is active, creative, vital, vibrant, continuously changing as we make and act on our conscious and unconscious choices and beliefs. Destiny was never meant to imprison; it was meant to offer a frame of reference that helps us look into our collective mirrors. The true meaning of destiny is purpose, expressed through values, understanding, choice and action.
I believe we do the best we can as national cultures given our resources, beliefs and available information at any moment in time. Much like individuals, “when we know better, we do better.” Even in moments of deep despair and anger about what I may consider to be the flaws of any particular national culture, I continue to believe that ultimately the collective “We” will both know better and do better. Alas, I cannot predict precisely when “ultimately” turns out to be or what the scenario will look like, although important clues abound. That being said, I try to contribute something to the ultimate moment I would personally like to experience in each moment of each day in my little corner of the world and in my little corner of our national culture. That may be all any of us can do. And when I know better, I’ll do better…