Growing up a Buddhist, I understood early on the importance of rituals, which involved long hours in hot stuffy rooms filled with incense, mantras, and honoring the dead. The dead were all around us in 1970s Vietnam. The only thing that provided sense and order to the living were the rituals. We didn't have much except happiness because we had each other.
In January 1790, the first US President, George Washington, wrote, "The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by creating a reasonable compact, in civil Society."
Let's analyze Washington's wisdom in greater detail:
- America is an experiment.
- America might very well be the last of its kind.
- America promotes human happiness.
- America wants a reasonable contract with its people.
The "America" that I'm referring to above is the American government. If we're lucky, there is little difference between the people and their government. But other times, there is a huge difference between the people and their government. Unfortunately you can name any given government around the world to which this applies.
The year 1790 was at the beginning of Washington's presidency that lasted eight years. He retired for many reasons, some personal, but mostly because he didn't want to die while serving, which would set a dangerous precedent of making the US Presidency a lifetime position. Thomas Jefferson, the third US President, solidified the tradition by refusing to run for a third term. They both seemed to understand that power is a corrupting force, especially over time. Mortals cannot withstand its siren song. History is filled with such examples and it's folly to believe that current world leaders aren't susceptible to it.
Here is George Washington in his Farewell Address in late 1796:
"Though in reviewing the incidents of my Administration I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence, and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest."
Typically American, Washington was concerned about the "many" errors he made unintentionally, because he didn't consciously make any mistakes intentionally if not for his "incompetent abilities," delightfully exposing his integrity and humility. I also sense a feeling of self-consciousness and inadequacy. He then turns to God asking for assistance on minimizing the negative effects of his errors, in addition to a biblical reference regarding his own mortality.
When a non-Vietnamese person thinks about Vietnam, he or she thinks about war. I know something about war. I've studied it all my life. War is the result of frail and arrogant old men trying to dupe other people's children to kill and die to help fix their political failures. In Vietnam's case, millions perished. When fools fail at diplomacy, they go into war. Only the strategically skilled and magnanimous prevent wars, but where is the glory in battles that never happen? So ruthless thugs take over thinking they can do better, and that, my friends, summarizes the last war in Vietnam.
Not everyone in history thought national conflicts necessitate war, violence, and death. About 2500 years ago, Sun Tzu, a Chinese military general said, "One who is skilled in warfare principles subdues the enemy without doing battle ... Winning battles such that the whole world cries, 'Excellent!' is not the highest excellence."
It's extremely upsetting to me when I see the weak being taken advantaged of by the greedy and corrupt. The last price to pay is death. Yet I can't help but wonder whether death is in fact the prize, because pain and suffering are conditions of the living, even for those who abuse others for some small advantage. It would seem only the dead have honor. How miserable and petty would a person have to be to take what little others have? Of course their gains are ultimately ephemeral, temporary, fleeting. They, too, will meet their fate.
Sun Tzu understood what true national leadership meant when he said, "The general who does not advance to seek glory, or does not withdraw to avoid punishment, but cares for only the people's security and promotes the people's interests, is the nation's treasure."
When a Vietnamese person thinks about Vietnam, he or she inevitably thinks about the Vietnamese people, namely the rich personal relationships with other Vietnamese in his or her life. The memories are vivid and indelible, no matter how long ago they were. These memories are especially enduring for the Vietnamese diasporas, having to leave one homeland to settle in another homeland. This drastic and scary change isn't for every Vietnamese. That's why Vietnamese Americans are unique among many. That's why America, a land composed of mostly immigrants, is unique among other nations in the world.
As displayed in George Washington's Farewell Address, America is obsessed with its doubts, self-improvement, and future. In one hand, we Americans (Vietnamese Americans very much included) have both the gumption and ingenuity to face impossible problems and truly believe we can overcome them. On the other hand, we continually call into question our own intelligence and competency. We always worry about whether we are good enough.
In contrast to the world's general view that Americans are arrogant, we are open to hearing out criticisms, and often those critics are ourselves. However, the freedom to air out our gripes indicates, ironically, true strength and confidence in ability. It's ok to think we aren't doing enough. Because we indeed need to get better. Manna doesn't last forever. We can't assume the "great experiment" will last without constant human (and divine) intervention. We need to continually ask ourselves what are we going to accomplish today, by the end of this week, this month, this quarter. But don't talk to us about next quarter. That's too far away. The future starts today. ❤