Whenever I spend time learning about our country today, whether I’m reading the newspaper, enjoying a news program or studying a book, I feel a deep sense of melancholy in my chest.
I mourn, and as I do, I keep thinking: This isn’t how a 22-year-old should feel. Youth is supposed to be a time of idealism and hope, of battles fought and won, when we plant the seeds of great dreams and better tomorrows.
Unfortunately, I can’t summon these emotions when I look at America now. How can I find reason to hope when suicide rates are at record highs, when 40 percent of adults suffer from loneliness, when half of American workers make less than $30,000 a year and when one-fifth of our children live in poverty?
These are depressing times. The technology age has given us the illusion of progress. We marvel at the smartphones in our pockets, the elegant computers on our end tables and the wonders of social media.
But when it comes to what’s truly important, America is broken.
Tragedy infects our political system too. According to polling from Gallup, Americans feel more divided from each other than ever before. Partisans on both sides treat one another with ridicule and disrespect instead of engaging in constructive debate.
Hating those who think differently than you has become the predominant bigotry of the 21st century.
And our politicians no longer listen to the people. A recent study from Princeton analyzed 1,800 different U.S. policies implemented between 1981 and 2002.
The researchers sought to figure out if America is a true democracy — that is, if the laws passed reflect the wishes of citizens.
Their discovery? In almost every instance, our policies didn’t reflect what the people wanted, but rather the interests of economic elites and big business.
The way America used to be – when the middle class was strong, families were healthy and our political system still worked properly – seems like a distant mirage.
Instead we are left with a very different sort of country, far removed from the vision of our Founding Fathers and the beautiful ideals enclosed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Granted, I certainly don’t have the slightest idea of how to turn things around. As an undergraduate, I have a lot more living, studying and thinking to do before figuring that out.
However, I have lived long enough to know there is one step we should all take, and that is to be kind to one another.
We ought to recognize that, in these tough times, the people we meet every day are often suffering from some secret wounds. In turn, we should give them the warmth and companionship needed to make their situations better.
In some instances, this will require serious work — sitting through the night with a depressed loved one, sharing financial resources to help a neighbor, volunteering in the community. In others, it will mean simply performing an act of small decency for a stranger.
Undergirding this effort must be a simple moral understanding: people are hurting. They may not share our political opinions, religion or class, but they are fathers and mothers, siblings and friends — as we are — and worthy of love and dignity and a prime place in our moral imagination.
As individuals, we are powerless against so much — whether there will be war or peace, jobs or unemployment, an enlightened education system or one that produces ignorance. Politicians will ultimately decide whether America will thrive or continue to suffer.
But each one of us can commit to grasping the hand of our neighbors, colleagues and friends and weathering this storm together.
Through this noble endeavor, a million moments of warmth and charity, we can help replenish the soil of our parched American garden.
It may not solve our great problems, help the unemployed find work or the mentally ill heal, but it will surely make enduring them a little easier and more humane.
That’s an achievement worth working toward.
Josh Heath is a Stevenson Ranch resident and a political science student about to graduate summa cum laude from UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party.