This past week I was in North Topsail Beach, North Carolina. My family, extended family and friends have been coming here since 2005. It is a non-touristy, serene location where long daily walks on the beach are mandatory.
Claywells on Eastern Shore
It was just north of here — a couple hundred miles or so — that the first Claywell landed on the continent, passing through Jamestown. Unlike me, Peter Clavell, an indentured servant, did not have many leisure hours and by the time he arrived in 1650, the seeds of exploitation had already been sown. Ship captains and land owners found inventive, legal ways to force wave upon wave of hard-working people, like Peter, into long periods of servitude.
So, Peter’s view of this continent was surely different than mine because personal experience colors how we see the world. In time, each of us comes to believe that, as a nation, America is the best, the worst — or somewhere in between.
In many ways, Topsail Island typifies this — the good, bad and indifferent. The beach is southeast of Camp Lejeune, a Marine base that trains its personnel in tactics of war. On a nearly daily basis, the sound of waves crashing into the shore is interrupted by military helicopters and V-22 Ospreys flying overhead.
This region came to life in the 1940s as part of the war effort. On the south end of the island, Camp Davis — with its 20,000 inhabitants — swelled the region’s population, and as the U.S. government created thousands of jobs both on and off the base, life was good for the local residents. At the end of the war, Operation Bumblebee tested and perfected rocket technology. Jobs associated with that project kept the region blossoming a little longer, but eventually the government lost interest, and handed the region back over to the locals.
Today, Holly Ridge, the town that hosted Camp Davis has a population of less than 1,300. A small museum in Topsail Beach, details the specifics of Operation Bumblebee. The museum, run by volunteers, is open 2-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Mystery of Life Solved
I prefer early morning walks on the beach. At dusk, I can see the rhythm of life more clearly and the serenity it evokes transcends nationalism and patriotism.
As the sun rises, birds walk on the wet sand just out of the ocean’s reach. They eat. They do not struggle to find food. The ocean delivers it. The birds do not engage in epic battles of war. They do not destroy each other over biological differences. They do not Tweet about their greatest. They do not set long-term goals. They do not seem even remotely interested in the people passing by. They simply do their work. They walk along the shoreline, eat whatever beach birds eat, knowing with an unwavering certainty that the ocean will deliver their meal today as well as tomorrow. The birds eat and then leave, heading off to do whatever they do.
On my walks I am mindful of how Jesus said the sparrows do not worry or toil, yet they are fed. Maybe that’s where America veered off the straight and narrow. We have Americanized Christianity. In our country everyone struggles, competes and fights over limited resources while far too many churches obsess over minute details of doctrine. Even Jesus reduced the 10 commandments down to two. It was (mostly) Paul who created those long list of rules — rules that, in time, have been interpreted and re-interpreted, creating hundreds of denominations in the United States, and in the process branding the words of Jesus by personal preference.
I am no master of religious studies — I tend to rely on scholars who are well-read and more knowledgeable. But my interest in religion correlates with my interest in America. Religion, specifically Christianity, is a major theme throughout our country’s history. It has been used to motivate, control, manipulate and inspire people since the country’s inception.
A religion that never caught on here, though, possibly because of its similarity to the beliefs of the Gnostic Christians (which is viewed as heresy by the orthodox church) is Buddhism. One of the basic tenet of this faith is ‘life is suffering.’ On its surface, it feels very pessimistic. But Buddhists, like Gnostic Christians, place more emphasis on self-knowledge, self-discovery and less emphasis on converting people to one’s interpretation of truth. I have always been more comfortable with this approach especially since I do not believe I can change anyone’s opinion.
But, I do find clarity in the premise that life is suffering.
I now also understand that Buddha and Jesus are not all that different, they are spokes leading to the same hub, because they both teach that the ‘kingdom of God’ is within. Struggling to obtain, achieve or convert, although very American, is not the purpose of life according to Jesus, the Buddha or the birds on the beach. Being authentic is. Learning each life lesson as it is delivered and understanding that all events have a primary cause, is my job.
Nothing Really Changes
I’m not sure America is much different than when Peter landed here in 1650. Then, as now, resources are controlled and restricted by powerful people. Political entities are still fighting for power and politicians are still leveraging current events for personal gain. Today, and maybe then (it’s hard to prove) people rely on a feeling — a ‘gut instinct’ when selecting leaders. They need to ‘feel’ that this or that candidate is the right choice. This leaves people ripe for exploitation. It turns politics, especially presidential elections, into marketing campaigns. So, candidates, guided by their consultants, test various approaches and messages on the public to see which one ‘will stick.’
Once the candidate finds the right formula, they march on, even if it means using a horrendous event to keep their name in the daily news cycle.
Of course, none of us believe we fall for marketing campaigns. Even though it was our rush to buy Pet Rocks that created an instant millionaire, and in the 70s, we intentionally wore polyester leisure suits — a clothing style mocked to this day. In many ways, our elections are just smoke and mirrors, and in the current state of politics, the only elections that matter are mid-term elections in years that end in zero. Those elections set the stage for gerrymandering.
Monitoring The Toilet
HB2 is a clear indication of the absurdity that transpires when the political process is cobbled by gerrymandering. Despite the misguided memes on social media depicting transgender people as cross-dressing, middle-aged men abusing girls in public restrooms, the real threat is a public unwilling to educate itself on the biology behind gender identification. The public outrage almost feels unpatriotic in a country founded by men who embraced the Age of Enlightenment — an era that treasured reason and science above tradition and religion. But, the real problem with the memes — they are incorrect. As a Tennessee District Attorney notes, when it comes to sexual abuse transgender people aren’t the problem, straight men are. According to Assistant DA Chad Butler,
As long as I’ve been doing this job and the hundreds of cases I’ve reviewed, I’ve never once had a transgender person come across my desk as an offender. A majority of my cases are fathers, stepfathers, uncles, Boy Scout leaders, coaches, youth ministers, preachers. People that are already close to the family that the family trusts.
But, as I walk I wonder, how did we get to the place where elected officials felt the need to monitor the bathroom? To a place where spewing, “I was right” is an acceptable response of a presidential candidate after more than 100 people are injured or dead in a mass shooting — while the families are still coming to terms with the tragedy? To a place where Congress is complicit in the senseless gun violence? Government is not some non-human entity. It is people. People hired by the public to do governmental things. Maybe, instead of the current drive to dismantle government and enflame the public, which only benefits career politicians, government officials and those running for office, should focus on policies that actually benefit citizens.
We All Want Smaller Government, Until We Don’t
For some, I guess, intrusive government is fine as long as it is monitoring restrooms, bedrooms or the uterus and a larger government is okay if it is financing Ospreys and rockets. But a government that tackles gun violence, poverty, job growth or tries to create a more balanced economic playing field is somehow cumbersome and unnecessary. In some ways it does make sense in our marketing-and-advertising-driven political world. Photos of decrepit buildings or impoverished children can never build the same level of excitement as planes engaging in vertical takeoff or images of the devastation rendered by our bombs.
Although, I lean toward a ‘this too will pass’ philosophy of life, I worry about a country that is becoming increasingly angry, intolerant and gullible. We have replaced dialogue and intellect with memes and pithy one-liners. We have divided the world into us and them.
I also think as I walk, that maybe it’s time to look at a simpler model of behavior — like those birds on the beach. As they scurry along the water’s edge, devouring the ocean’s daily offering, they seem much calmer and much wiser than me.
After all, they simply show up, do their work, and enjoy their daily meal. They do it all without a struggle.