The internal properties of our freedom are only starting to be seen as the true home of our citizenship for the 21st century. “A more perfect union” is rooted in how each of us becomes “more perfect” ourselves.
Before we really can feel free, we must find an internal moral center. Only building a portrait of character over a lifetime prepares us to fulfill our lives well in a free society. Much as with an airplane in danger, we must breathe by first putting on our oxygen masks of liberty.
In many ways, the ideal path of citizenship takes form across life as a spiral. The spiral, from seashells and whirlpools, to atoms and galaxies, is among the most widespread shapes in nature. It is a form of nature’s breathing, and design alphabet. It’s often a symbol of self-transformation also – from Biblical whirlwinds, to the famous Yellow Brick Road in the Land of Oz.
A spiral can be viewed as a circle with momentum. There is a quality of aspiration in it: as we grow, the energy of a spiral moves, inspires, expands, and finally twirls into shape. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: “The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end…The one thing which we seek…is…to draw a new circle…” in life.
But exactly how is citizenship like a spiral, and how do we own the spiral of our character? Progression of character counts on the will to believe anew. As we all become better tomorrow than today, and today than yesterday, we become more oxygenated. As this process unfolds we will start to bring exemplary lift back into our citizen body.
Citizenship in the future must be aspirational. It needs to rise above mere duties and obligations. Not a box into which we fit, it should be a platform through which we come into our own, one by one, as people. Like bread that rises, a new citizenship will accelerate our intentions. Far from a rigorous set of dour expectations, it can help “cast aside every weight.”
A new citizen model within us will only build an improved ethic among us. Because power intrinsically lives in every moment of growth, of discovering the new, of taking fresh aim in life, we put off dead circumstances and elevate ourselves and one another with each better estimate of life. This is the way society knows no voices need go unheard.
Our politics become, as a result, more ennobling. By aligning around common interests, the public temper starts to organize itself anew. It then becomes easier for leaders and the population to separate sturdy long-term principles from short-term aggravations. This provides the country a better way to look at the right problems. Like the spiral, we need a citizenship that creates, within us and among us, a new circle of belief.
The notion of a superb citizen republic depends on it. We can claim a world beyond, only by strengthening our ethic within. When a consensus is strong, it doesn’t have to be written down. The Public Square knows unwritten codes generate more agreement than written ones. When you and I make choices in life we may not think we’re building on something, but we are.
Citizenship can be our union, our character. It can avoid division, parochialism, and guard us. As we move beyond our rights, to claim a new layer of freedom inside, we will make the American model more truly intergenerational than ever. Rights are the mere scaffolding. The conscience they surround, that can flourish within all of us, is a command of ourselves.
Citizenship as an “open door” is a notion that has not enlarged since it was given. It is not bigger, and it is not smaller than when first carved out. But we have advanced to a point we can imagine new possibilities. The line, “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” may also boast one day – “the sun never sets on American Citizenship.”