What being an American means to me

I’m a few days behind, but better late than never, right?

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As I stood watching the fireworks after listening to Old Crow Medicine Show give a free concert in Jackson, Wyoming on the night of July 4th, I again realized that we really do live in a great country.

“Don’t you ever feel guilty for being an American?” a friend asked as we walked back to the car afterwards.

“No,” I said.

She seemed a little shocked by my answer. “Not even with all the stuff that’s going on around the world, like in Egypt right now with their government?” (Egypt’s political unrest causes regional concern)

“No. I feel extremely grateful for having been born here, and for living here, but I don’t feel guilty. I didn’t choose it, so it’s not something that I’m going to feel guilty for.”

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Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., 2011.

We then got distracted by two men passing on bikes singing “Wagon Wheel,” but I wanted to continue the conversation. By the time we found the car and navigated traffic, my friend was asleep in the passenger seat, so I was left to the radio and my own thoughts.

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Like with any privilege, I think part of being an American means being the best person you can be. It means taking advantage of the opportunities you have, and using them to make the world a better place. This applies to everyone, from every country, this isn’t a distinctly American thing. That is what traveling, both in the US and around the world, has taught me. Coming home from Asia and deciding to renounce all worldly possessions, become a freegan and live off the grid in the woods behind my parent’s house does nothing to help alleviate the poverty and corruption I saw on a daily basis in Cambodia and Nepal. It might make me feel self-righteous and holier-than-thou-because-I-don’t-bathe-on-a-daily-basis-and-eat-weird-organic-foods, but it’s not going to actually do anything (except maybe make my parents become extremely worried about my mental and physical health).

I have a college education, and not using it to help the world makes it, in a way, worthless. Knowledge for it’s own sake is good, we should always keep learning, but what really matters is what you then do with your knowledge. If you are making the world a better place, then you are doing what you’re meant to be doing. It doesn’t matter if you start a non-profit foundation that saves pandas or simply smile at everyone you meet as you walk down the sidewalk. If that’s what you can do, do it.

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The American Robin: even more American than apple pie. (This is a juvenile, which is why it might look a little funny). 

We each have different paths in life, different callings. Mine is not to become a doctor and travel to 3rd world countries and provide vaccines to starving children. But I’m not going to feel guilty about it. My calling, at least for right now, is to do research on birds, to share that research with other people, and to encourage them to love the natural world as much as I do. Today I showed small children how to catch birds in a mist net, and how to band them, and then they “helped” me let them go. The wonder on their faces is what I do to make this world a better place. Is holding a wild bird for a moment so a 5 year old can look at it as important as giving that 5 year old their booster shot, or sending food to starving children in Africa? Yes, it is, because that’s what I can do.

I am many things, just one of which is an American. I will not say that I am always in agreement with everything that goes on in this country, or with my fellow Americans, but I will say this: I do not feel guilty for being who I am. I love my country and the people in it, for who we have been, for who are right now, and for who we will become.

From the mountains, to the prairies,

To the oceans, white with foam,

God bless America, my home sweet home.

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