The pioneer spirit built America. The first European settlers forged new trails in the hills, swamps, and forests of the East, then onward into the mountains, across the plains, through the desert and high passes, to the West Coast. They plowed virgin earth, hardscrabble as well as fertile, raised crops, and learned to live with sometimes helpful, sometimes hostile neighbors. They did not always do it with grace, and there is much we regret in retrospect – the treatment of natives and people from Africa, most especially – yet the communities and nation they created were, in the end, one of history’s great achievements.
The pioneers sacrificed and endured incredible hardship, not so much for themselves but for the next generations – for others far more than for themselves.
It is tempting today to say that spirit – the American Spirit, if you will – has passed on. Many people complain about the present state of our country. They cite social conflict, economic hardship, and stagnant opportunity as examples of how far we have fallen. Political discord, religious intolerance, prejudice, hypocrisy – the list of failures, barriers, and even evils seems endless.
There is much to that. Sometimes I, too, feel our country and the world at large are a nest of chaos and that the laws of physics dictate it can only get worse. Entropy and indeed disaster are inevitable.
And yet . . .
On a day when I am at my absolute lowest, a random person in a checkout line smiles at me and offers to let me go ahead of them in a long line. I hear a story about a friend’s child who gave a year’s worth of her allowance to a homeless shelter. A friend returns from a mission trip to Africa, brimming with stories about digging a well that brought fresh running water to a village where people once walked five miles to a polluted stream each morning.
Maybe I am just a die-hard optimist – guilty, surely – but I didn’t start that way. I came to this outlook out of necessity to combat the pain of the world.
These stories fill me with hope and inspiration. So, too, do tales of heroism, not just on the battlefield, where it’s expected, but in big cities and small towns: neighbors rushing past flames to retrieve sleeping babies, 10-year-olds standing up to bullies picking on newcomers in class. Random acts of everyday kindness: a young man shoveling an elderly neighbor’s driveway after a snowstorm, a retired gentleman cutting the lawn for the pregnant wife of a deployed serviceman – all of these things fill me with hope.
I see them as signs of community. Minor sacrifices, maybe, yet affirmations that the same core values and the same selfless impulses that helped build this country are not gone or even dormant.
We are bombarded with negative stories because, frankly, they sell. Maybe it’s part of a survival mechanism to see the worst, so we can prepare for it and learn to avoid it in our own lives.
That’s not me. I hate other people’s pain. I find my day inevitably brightened when I hear about such things on a grand scale – the husband and wife who, after losing a daughter, began a foundation to help children with the same disease. I feel a tingle, and even a sense of satisfaction, when I read a story about someone famous and busy who, for altruistic reasons, gave her time to visit with wounded soldiers or went out of her way to make sure an elderly stranger had a warm meal that day.
Am I wrong to think that these things are a sign of hope for the future? Should I suppress the sense of joy that comes when I see a ripple effect of everyday kindness: the town that got involved after a single child raised money for a food pantry, the national organization that was inspired by a local businessman’s pledge to help his neighborhood?
I don’t think so.
I have had the privilege of traveling across America and meeting many people in the years since my husband, Chris, was cruelly murdered by a man he was trying to help. So many people have offered me comfort – and, more than that, they have told me stories about the good things their neighbors are doing, accounts of how they were helped or inspired by others. Each has a different perspective: Some point to God’s hand in our daily lives; others talk about innate human kindness. Some talk of miracles. Others see a complicated logic of cause and effect.
All, I think, are testimony of the best America has to offer: her American Spirit. It’s still alive. We may not see it on television or read about it on the Internet. But that’s our individual shortcoming, not the failure of God, or Nature, or mankind. Chaos surely is present – but if the same fearful laws of physics tell us that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction, surely there are opposing forces fighting to establish a better balance and a better future.
I acknowledge the propensity of man for evil. I believe it is the only way to truly appreciate the good. I believe we can fight evil with goodness in order to prevent chaos from consuming us. I think there is good in everyone, literally everyone, but it is up to them to access it.
Shining a light in the darkness produces more light. It ripples, and in so doing, it multiplies its effect through our communities, our nation, and the world in general.
It doesn’t happen on its own, but it doesn’t require much to start a ripple. We simply need to pay attention and take action. As the ripple grows, there will be small and large sacrifices. There also must be thought, planning and spontaneity as well. It takes leadership, even if those who are called to be leaders don’t realize that’s the role they’ve taken on.
Focusing on the beauty rather than the ashes in life warrants celebration, highlighting the efforts to brighten a sometimes very dark world.
That’s what my friend and collaborator Jim DeFelice and I doing in this book. Over our time traveling and just living, we, both of us reformed skeptics and cynics, have spent more than a year meeting and talking to different people who have shined a light in the darkness.
Many of these people have overcome tremendous handicaps or suffered great losses. Many have been blessed with an uncomplicated, rich life. Some have lucked into success; others have had worldly success denied in the harshest ways. But all have drawn on the best of themselves and in turn entrenched the American Spirit in others.
The people and organizations you’ll meet in this book are, we hope, a cross-section of America. A few are famous, a few are very young, many are wise, but they don’t share one particular quality other than heart and a desire to do good in order to help their fellow man and, in turn, mankind.
The people and organizations you’ll meet in our book are each doing their own part to bring order to chaos and to show up for other people. I believe they improve the lives of all of us every day just by tipping the scales more in favor of good more than evil. Each one represents a different way of either overcoming adversity, helping others, or both. Each one, in his or her own way, represents the pebble that lands in the middle of the pond, generating ripples of help and hope outward.
Their actions are an example for the rest of us. If a “notorious” bad-ass like Jesse James can help the homeless, if a preteen from middle America can raise money for cancer victims with a lemonade stand, if a few socks can brighten a shut-in’s day – what can we do to make a difference?
And what – perhaps less noteworthy – actions do we take that imprint on the next generation in ways we may never know, simply because we lived a good life caring about others. What tips will they pick up? How will the pebbles of our actions create ripples? It isn’t ours to know; it is only ours to do right, live well, and help others. The beauty about ripples is, they take care of themselves.
I don’t mean to preach, but it occurs to Jim and me that there’s something here for everyone in these stories we’ve compiled. We are from opposite coasts with a wide range of experiences and friendships between us. There isn’t anyone we know who can’t appreciate some highlighting of good in the world.
My hope is to combat the influx of negativity with some positivity to benefit your soul as it has mine. My desire is for you to know that every action, big or small, has the potential to spark someone else’s movement. My fondest wish is that someone reading our book will see themselves in one of the stories and go out and do something similar. Or better.
I’ve learned many things while working on this book: lessons about resilience, about courage, about generosity. Lessons about God and religion, lessons about human nature. But what I’ve taken away most importantly is this:
Despite what the haters, the politicians, and the antagonists say, the beauty in the American Spirit is still very much alive. It hasn’t died; it’s not even on life support. It does have to be nurtured – but that’s always been true, from the very first settlements in Florida, Massachusetts and Virginia. It was true on the frontier, in 1860, 1890, 1941. It’s true now.
It’s good to look back to the pioneers for examples; it’s important to celebrate the achievements of the Greatest Generation. And it’s critical to look at what others are doing today, to look at our lives, and to say: What have I done to build on the promises their achievements made? What else can I do tomorrow?
I hope our book will provide a few hints to what the answers might be.
Excerpted from "American Spirit," by Taya Kyle and Jim DeFelice. Copyright © 2019 by 300 Spartans, LLC, by arrangements with William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.