“Nothing worth gaining is ever gained without effort. You can no more have freedom without striving and suffering for it than you can win success as a banker or a lawyer without labor and effort.”
Theodore Roosevelt – Duties of American Citizenship
What does it mean to be a citizen?
The complexity of this question reveals itself as you peel away layers of accepted truths. At its most basic level, citizenship is a kind of contract. There are rights you are afforded (or should be) and in return, you recognize certain duties. Though, most of those duties are of the “you should…” sort. You should vote, you should get involved in local affairs, you should volunteer within your community, but many people don’t do those things—and they still demand the rights of citizenship. In fact, the people howling loudest about citizenship rights are those who have done nothing to earn them aside from being born within a particular set of lines on a map. Do they deserve those rights? Do I? Do you?
You cannot address this question without admitting that not all citizens enjoy the same rights and not all citizens have done much to earn the rights they possess.
I find there’s never a shortage of people telling you what you are owed as a citizen and who is to blame for you not having it. Thinking that way breeds a citizenship of entitlement. Conversely, there are people such as Teddy Roosevelt who argued that everyone had to strive and suffer for freedom. It is not something that is owed but something that is gained. I could not answer the question of citizenship without resolving those opposing views so I went hunting for meaning. Entitled citizens are easy to find and I was quick to realize that they were too busy hoarding liberty to help me track down my elusive quarry. I moved on.
A few weeks ago, I was called to serve in jury duty. I took a day off from work, went to a terrible neighborhood in my county and waited in just the saddest waiting room ever with a room full of disgruntled people. People came late, they shifted around and grumbled every time someone spoke to us. We watched a video on the importance of jury duty and its connection to citizenship. I looked around at my fellow citizens and watched while most typed away on their phones.
I was on my citizenship quest so I scoffed at the entitled reactions of my fellow jurors. Yet, something nagged at the back of my awareness. I realized later that in that room, I was witnessing a shadow side of citizenship not just with them but within myself. Most people approach citizenship the same way as jury duty. It’s a burden. We like it in theory but mostly only if someone else is doing it. I could pat myself on the back knowing I wasn’t one of the entitled citizens but I started to wonder if that was enough.
Then, I went to volunteer at a shelter, thinking, “This is the type of thing citizens do, right?” I’ve volunteered before but no single event has changed my view of citizenship more profoundly than this experience. My job at the shelter was to coach young adults through mock interviews as they went out to get jobs, some of them for the first time. First, one of the employees took us on a tour of the shelter. He told us, somewhat off-handedly, that one of the first things they tell people, mostly teenagers, on their first night there was that they “don’t have to have sex to get food.” He told us how they don’t allow drugs in the building but it’s hard because drugs have become a means for these young adults to deal with their rage at being abandoned or having their bodies sold by family members for drugs.
And then there’s me.
Patting myself on the back for showing up on time every 3 years for jury duty and volunteering every now and then seemed pretty pathetic as I heard story after story of people who were trying to claw their way back to life. I realized there that I really was more of a check the box citizen. Sure, I vote. I pay taxes. I go to jury duty without trying to get out of it, but am I doing anything to actively make sure our justice system is fair to all its citizens? I volunteer sometimes if it’s not too inconvenient, but am I doing what I should to make sure the leaders of my city, my state, and my country are taking us in a direction I agree with not only for my family but for all residents? Do I stand for something greater than myself or am I just another person standing around with a hand out, basking in the freedoms bought by other people’s lives, wondering why more isn’t being done for me? Am I a good citizen or am I just sitting in the juror room of citizenship, rolling my eyes at the duties I’ve been asked to perform?
I sat across from someone who had been a male prostitute at an age when my biggest worry had been a surprise quiz in Algebra. I wanted to reach across the gulf that separated our lives and say that I understood and that I was here to help in a laughably small way. I wanted to tell him that he was braver than I’ve ever had to be in my life and that the interview that scared him so much was nothing compared to the trials he’s faced. Though of course, I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t even visit the galaxy of understanding. All I had was my time and my advice. It was not enough; not nearly enough but it was something. It was a pebble against the avalanche of broken lives and heart-breaking stories, but at least it was that. That was the kind of citizenship I had been looking for – a citizenship of people who had gathered what pebbles they could and stood defiant against the collapse. These people are not entitled or check the box citizens.
They are Citizen Gladiators.
The entitled citizen asks what she or he is owed. The entitled citizen sees a discarded beer bottle on the street and leaves it for someone else to deal with. Citizen gladiators pick it up because it is in their neighborhood. They are not entitled to a clean neighborhood. They don’t complain about not having a clean neighborhood. They earn a clean neighborhood through their actions. Check the box citizens moan on Facebook about how terrible everything is and who is to blame without actually doing anything about it. Citizen gladiators go out and fight to make a difference. The internet is dangerous because shouting into the void about an injustice makes it feel like you’re accomplishing something when really, nothing has been gained. It’s a release of the anger and frustration without putting that energy towards making anything better.
The meaning of being a citizen is so hard to define because it’s been packaged and sold as a method of division. We’ve all been led to believe that freedom, liberty and justice are scarce commodities. Politicians have sold us a broken story that you can only have those things by taking it away from others like some sort of injustice musical chairs. As I go deeper down the wonder rabbit hole, I’m learning that living your best life isn’t possible unless you’re helping others live their best life as well.
There are a lot of loud and unreasonable people out there shouting answers to questions no one has asked. Some of us are letting them run the show by opting out of citizenship by being too busy or too entitled to truly earn our citizenship. Far too often I’ve found myself on the entitled or check the box end of that spectrum but the thing about wonder is that it breeds more wonder. When I went looking for citizenship, I found it and I didn’t always like what I saw. Of course, now the question is: what am I going to do about it?