To be subject to illumination is to gain insight and understanding. To become enlightened is to have one’s eye’s opened to other perspectives and led to imagine new and different possibilities. That is part of why our celebration of this season is so defined by the ubiquitous twinkle of electric bulbs, the glow of candles, and the lighting up of the otherwise short and dark days of December. Like the star that is reported to have shown so brightly that long ago night, it is the season for enlightenment and the opening of hearts.
Regardless of faith or creed, we have all experienced a piece of what is described in the familiar story as the glory that shown around the shepherds keeping watch over their flock in the dark of night. We have felt it whenever life has cast a light on us and moved us to care for another or to be devoted to something greater than ourselves.
Our county has often been the beneficiary of such illumination. There was an unmistakable glow to its improbable birth in defeating the world's greatest monarchy in the name of establishing self-government. Light ultimately prevailed in the painful battle to rid us of our original sin of slavery. It shown on us in our overcoming a Great Depression to lead the world in the conquest of fascism. Through enlightenment, we expanded suffrage and established fundamental civil rights. It helped take us to the moon and back, and bring to the world medical technological advances that, every instant, touch lives everywhere.
This year, however, despite the illumination that is so inextricably associated with the season, we find ourselves consumed in a kind of darkness. The national conversation, so essential to the pursuit of democracy, is drowned in a sea of tweeted divisiveness, that unequivocally rejects the noble cause of searching for common ground. The notion that we are all part of the human family appears lost in constant invective, and the sense that we are part of something greater than ourselves, in which we all have a valuable role to play, is dismissed in rhetoric that preys on the worst of our instincts.
We are better than this. In the past, as a nation, we have certainly experienced our share of darkness. We brought about self-governance but denied full participation to more than half the population. At a bloody cost, we ended slavery but gave legitimacy to violent enforcement of segregation. With a proud Statue of Liberty, we opened our gates to the world but closed doors to many of those who entered, and even built internment camps for our own citizens. But we have always overcome these things and risen above that which diminishes us.
I think that this is so because there is a fundamental goodness in a free people. It arises from the principle that, in a free nation, everyone has a stake in sustaining the institutions that serve to preserve and protect that freedom; and, by being vested in the greater good, the people are moved to assume responsibility for the justness and integrity of the nation in which they live.
That, to me, is the light of America. It is not just the matter that we are free. It is that we are all part of an idea. It is an idea that allows us to understand that no one is free if anyone is not; that we are all in this together; and that preservation of freedom requires extending its light as far as our minds and talents permit. We all have something to contribute to the making of a more perfect union, and every small step is a consequential one if it is taken in the right direction.
It is time for us to take the national conversation back from those who have so bent it for their purposes. This year, perhaps the mantra of the holiday season, that there be peace on earth and goodwill toward all, can be more than a greeting card phrase. Perhaps the glow of the lights will inspire us to recognize that the any realization of that simple holiday wish rests with each of us, and that, as Americans, we have all been tasked with lighting the darkness.
Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a shareholder in a downtown law firm. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.