For most of my adult life, almost 30 years, I have been an avid recreational and competitive cyclist, riding four to five days a week for as many as 10,000 miles in a year. I have been a part of the same riding community for almost that entire time, with organized rides taking place most days of any week.
Recently, I met a good friend to ride warm-up laps before our Wednesday evening ride from a local bicycle shop, a ride we affectionately call the Tour de Pacolet. When he and I rolled up to the start of the main group ride a few minutes before 6 p.m., one of the other cyclists told us that the bicycle shop owner had just told him that a cyclist had just been struck and killed by a motorist a few miles from where we sat about to ride.
Immediately, my mind turned to a handful of my closest friends who ride their bicycles to this ride, any of whom could have been the cyclist who had died in the accident. At 6 we rode out on our course, all a bit disoriented and concerned about not knowing who had been involved or how.
And here is where I have to make a confession that isn't easy to make: A few hours later when we discovered the name of the cyclist who had been killed, I was relieved, the first feeling I experienced once I knew that the accident hadn't involved Steve or Wayne or Greg or Parker or one of the Danfy twins.
I have been in two cycling accidents involving cars, one of which resulted in a fractured ankle for me, and I was of course, saddened and shaken that a fellow cyclist had lost his life on the very road we were about to follow. But that moment of relief about the fact that this accident involved a stranger has given me pause for several days.
Human Life and the American Race
I am a crier.
When my daughter, Jessica, was in those wonderful tween years after being a toddler and before being school age, sleeping in her tiny day bed, I would walk up to her room while she slept. Jess always slept like a brick, radiating heat like a furnace and usually with the bedspread and sheet kicked mostly off her frail body. I would often reach down and squeeze a foot, feeling its warmth radiate up my arm and fill my chest until I realized that I was crying.
But that sort of crying is sprung from a deep and specific love or awareness of a person, just as I had immediately feared the loss of one of my cycling friends.
I have to add here that my life as a crier, however, includes every single time I watch Notting Hill (a film I have seen dozens and dozens of times).
When Anna Scott arrives at William's bookstore and tries to reunite with him:
William: I live in Notting Hill. You live in Beverly Hills. Everyone in the world knows who you are, my mother has trouble remembering my name.
Anna Scott: I'm also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.
I cry, each time I watch it.
When Rheya and Chris appear to be reunited in the space station in Solaris:
Rheya Kelvin: Were you alone?
Chris Kelvin: Yes.
Rheya Kelvin: Was that difficult?
Chris Kelvin: It was easier than being with someone else.
I cry, each time I watch it.
These moments of deep and genuine tears are not only about strangers, but fictional characters; these people don't even exit. It is these tears shed in empathy, the gut-wrenching feeling that I have felt many times in my life that I believe is at the core of being fully human.
This power to feel empathy that is a part of human nature, then, I feel, has been subsumed by the prevalent cultural forces surrounding me daily.
An American culture driven by competition.
An American culture at least calloused if not cavalier about war.
An American culture that applauds the death penalty.
An America culture that shuns universal health care.
An American culture that tolerates nearly one in five children living in poverty.
An American culture that asserts that people living in poverty in the U.S. have it good.
Competition and Community: A Culture Lost
In my introduction to American education course, we have been discussing whether or not monolithic cultures exist, and while the discussion acknowledged that clear guidelines are difficult, most students trust that cultures do exist and then can be defined by something akin to shared values.
In the foundational document of the U.S.—in terms of expressing belief and national values—the Declaration of Independence suggests something of an American culture:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
--That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
As I have been wrestling with myself about the cycling accident I opened with above, I cannot shake these foundational words from my mind, specifically that word "life."
I think that I am not alone in my occasional callousness about human life, my temporary relief that a close friend had not been involved when someone else had lost his life. American culture, I think, gives lip service to truths we claim are self-evident, but the real qualities of Americans as people are much more troubling, and I believe the culprit is the dehumanizing consequence of competition.
"The recruitment of young gamers has forced some changes in military training. Earlier this year, the Army announced that it would reshape basic training to accommodate a new generation of tech-savvy recruits who may have more gaming skills than physical fitness."
Many military strikes occurring in contemporary warfare look like a video game, with the soldiers themselves never seeing the victims, with the American public left to our daily lives as if innocent people aren't dying somewhere else.
We are all relieved that the deaths aren't people we know.
War has become yet another competition, a sport, for many Americans, and we are a country blindly committed to competition. We call again and again for free markets where the invisible hand can wield its magic and spring forth all that is good.
And washed away in our competitive zeal, I fear, is a basic component of humanity—compassion.
To compete necessarily creates losers. To see the world as a finite bounty of material goods that each of us must fight to attain creates a cut-throat mentality that necessitates that I get mine and that you are left out in the cold.
Yes, I believe, there is an American culture, and it is best called the American race for the irony.
However, with community as a self-evident truth, we could be a people who cherish every child as our own, who feed each child on our soil and who insure the safety of each child across the world who today may be lost in a drone attack because we have video-game wars that we ignore while watching the NFL on Sunday afternoons.
With community as a self-evident truth, we would be driven by compassion and not revenge, we'd use the greatest collection of wealth and power in human history to rise above war, hunger, poverty, and illness—hand in hand as a people with values shared but not owned, values shared and not waved like flags of victory.
Instead, we Americans are rushing about in our cars, too busy to slow down and think about the lives we endanger each time we drive.
Instead, we Americans are competing for the next dollar and never really that concerned about who sits in our prison system (and why), who does or doesn't have health care, or how many children live in poverty not of their choosing.
American culture is a race, and we often have just enough time and energy to be relieved as long as it isn't us or someone we know who didn't survive the battle.
Pontari, B. A., & Rasmussen, P. R. (2009). Competition reconsidered: A perspective from psychology. In W. B. Worthen, A. S. Henderson, P. R. Rasmussen, & T. L. Benson (Eds.), Competition: A multidisciplinary analysis (pp. 47-59). Boston: Sense Publishers.