I was a social work intern at a community mental health center, when I was assigned to a young man mandated by the court to receive counseling. He had just assaulted his ex-girlfriend with a baseball bat. My client – I’ll call him Mitch – derived his feelings of power and strength by how forcefully he could stand up to those who crossed him. Now Mitch was in trouble. Unless he could learn another way to feel powerful, he was headed for serious prison time.
I stayed on at the mental health center after finishing my internship, and Mitch continued to come in to see me long after the court’s mandate expired. Mitch respected me – probably because I respected him. I never questioned his need to feel powerful. But I continually contested how he defined it. By the end of our work together, some three years later, Mitch had transformed himself into a man who drew his esteem from his capacity to listen, understand, compromise and forgive.
American culture, however, does not support this view. In the movie Witness a detective, played by Harrison Ford, joins an Amish family in order to help solve a murder. In one scene, the Amish family is taunted by bigoted youths in a nearby town. The detective meets their insults with his fists, while the Amish family, committed to nonviolence, shows us that there is more strength in restraint than in retaliation.
But it’s the detective’s aggression that is most reflective of how the American people define strength. Domestically and internationally, American strength is synonymous with might. It’s beating down our enemies. Anything else is weakness.
The war in Iraq is a case in point: with shock and awe the US had hoped to crush the regime of Saddam Hussein and bring his government to its knees. The war is turning out badly, but President Bush says, “We must stay the course.” To pay for this venture, he has driven us into breathtaking debt and accuses those who resist spending more as weak on defense. But why is it strong to spend billions on war, but not billions on caring for people?
I believed Mitch could change and I believe we can too. I have a vision of a strong America. It’s a country that understands that we are all part of one community. A country where everyone has access to healthcare, our aging parents get the services they need, our children are educated, and our disabled get supports to maintain their dignity. I see us dismantling our own weapons of mass destruction, developing clean energy to address global warming, and becoming a force of goodwill around the globe. Idealistic? What’s wrong with that?
I think of Mitch and how he transformed himself from a vengeful man into a strong and peaceful one. If Mitch could do it, why not an American president? And why not the American people?
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