Americans Are Exhausted

U. S. Defeated by BelgiumLots of pictures this morning of our valiant U. S. soccer players, sprawled out over the field in sheer exhaustion, defeated once again on the world stage of World Cup competition. We are not ready for the big time, we are told, and that seems true. But think of it this way. This scrappy bunch of guys gave us a glimpse of something that runs pretty deep—the underdogs, the dreamers, the hard workers, those who exceed beyond expectations—this kind of thing is buried in the DNA of the American character. Maybe that’s why we cheered with such national enthusiasm.

I have come to believe we are an exhausted nation. We are a divided, uncertain nation. Perhaps we needed a fresh moment of aspiring and achieving. Perhaps we needed even to dream that we will grow up someday. Perhaps we needed, if only for a moment, to step out of our worries and our exhaustion.

I can’t escape the feeling that Americans are exhausted. We are worn out trying to figure out whether we are protectors of freedom abroad or not. If we are, things are not going so well. We are tired of spending precious lives to defend order, civility, and freedom for others, only to become the bunching bag of petty tyrants, or to face the continuing disorder of fierce factions far beyond our control. While we don’t like what’s happening in so many places in the world, we don’t feel so certain anymore about our influence. That makes us tired.

There are other things that wear us out these days. We are tired of trying to determine what kind of moral universe we want to be a part of at home. On every front there is an assault on traditional moral commitments—from sexuality and marriage, the sanctity of life, matters of civility and decency, the protection of religious liberty—and we are left uncertain and confused. Are these advances good for us? What will take the place of the moral order practiced over the centuries? We don’t know how to answer these questions, and that wears us out.

We are tired of seeing our schools crumble and our universities grow out of reach for so many young people. Education is broken by an economic structure no longer nimble enough to respond to rapid change. The achievement of our students, on all levels, drops behind our counterparts across the world. We have come to realize—actually for some time now—that we have no common agreement about what kinds of ideals we should be teaching. Here too we are fundamentally divided, and that makes us tired.

We are worn out by our failures to address the widening gap between the poor, the dwindling middle class, and the rest of us who have plenty. We have failed the poor, and yet we don’t know how to address this seemingly intractable problem. This is very frightening. Very wrong. What do we do? Our answer inevitably relies—sometimes in fierce disagreement—on our ideological divide. In the meantime, as we squabble about the causes and solutions, the gap grows evermore wide and destructive and hurtful to real human beings who are trapped in the cycle of permanent poverty.

Somehow the problem, as I always say, is cultural. Let’s put it this way: Do we really have much common ground about what kind of a society we want to be and become? Perhaps that’s what soccer represents for us this morning. It was not just winning we wanted, though that of course is a goal. It was also consummate skill we wanted to see. It was highly conditioned and trained players, hardworking, determined. It was teamwork. The winners always have the utter magic of teamwork. And then there is character: the ability to dream, determination against the odds, hardworking people, genuinely decent people even in the arena of fierce competition. Perhaps bedrock humility is also a good place to begin.

Yes, indeed, we do lie out on the turf exhausted. We are exhausted as a nation. It’s time, though, to get up off the ground and figure out where we go from here. We’ve got to think hard on those deeper questions of what we stand for, who we are, what we aspire to become—and then we’ve got to roll up our sleeves for the next phase of our lives together. No illusions here: There is some hard work out ahead, but exhaustion can’t be our final word, can it?   U. S. Belgium 3