There’s a revolution going on but most of us appear not to notice. Or, as Aldous Huxley put it, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” We all realize we are living in times of great change and transition, but we are failing in our belief that we can change any of it. One of the vital aspects of any individual or corporate identity is that it can often just be the imprint of the times we live in, as opposed to affecting our world through who we truly are and what we believe. In other words, to just observe is to be diminished.
Most of us know the story of Rip Van Winkle, the American villager who ventured into the woods one day, took a nap, and woke up 20 years later. The real import of the narrative, at least as Washington Irving meant it, focused on the times Van Winkle slept through. They were indeed turbulent, filled with change and agitation of the citizenry.
When Rip Van Winkle nodded off, King George III was still in charge of America; when he awoke he discovered that another George (Washington) was president. He assumed he had only slept for a night but almost immediately sensed something was wrong. His beard was a foot long and the children of the village viewed him as some old relic. While the hills around him appeared the same, it was the people who had changed, for they had just passed through the American Revolution and the sleepy old days of village life were gone. He had fallen asleep in a pasture but had woken in a new nation. The old order was gone and in its place were independence and a Constitution. The people around him were animated, understanding that they now had distinct roles to play. The old ways were gone; in their place stood a citizenry determined to lead their own future.
Van Winkle got a whiff of just how much had changed when, in Irving’s words, he encountered a man, “pockets stuffed with handbills, haranguing repeatedly about rights of citizens – election – members of congress – liberty.” The year was 1796 and Rip Van Winkle had slept through a revolution. People wondered if he was a Federal or a Democrat, a Tory or a spy, a subject or a citizen. It was all too much and it forced him to exclaim:
I’m not myself – I’m somebody else – somebody else got into my shoes. I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!”
Talk about an identity crisis. Here was a man who lived in a transforming society and had missed it, losing himself in the process. Rip’s twenty-year sleep had become a parable of civic life. While the community was rising to new challenges, some never saw them, never confronted their own role in making change or being part of it. Here was a man consumed with the immediate circumstances of his life, and yet his world had suddenly become bigger, more challenging, and he had lost his place in it. The newfound realities of citizenship had little effect on him because he didn’t realize how much had changed and how his own identity was now mixed in with the fate of others. To sleep through it had important consequences for him.
What Rip Van Winkle ultimately required was a willingness to shape his character to the larger responsibilities around him. Much would be required of him if he made the adjustment. Gone were the easier days of being guided by authorities far removed from local realities. In their place was a kind of newfound freedom that placed more responsibility in his own hands.
Rip Van Winkle’s predicament would be funny if it didn’t speak to such serious issues – just as Washington Irving intended. The moment people hand over the reigns of their civic life to others there must be a certain diligence to it, a willingness to stay alert in making sure they are represented effectively. It is now passé to suddenly wake up and proclaim that the governors no longer reflect the realities and aspirations of the governed. It’s a new day; excuses no longer apply. Neither is it acceptable to just blame elites while moving on blithely with our everyday lives. Each one of us is now responsible for his or her own ignorance.
We need a steady stream of women and men, dedicated to their communities and their country, to replenish our institutions, not attempt to live outside of them. Institutions are how we connect to one another and carry out the ideals of our collective life. To nod off just at the time of their pressing renewal is to remain a throwback to an earlier time.
Democracy no longer thrives in a few hands. The rest of the world has begun to wake up to this reality and is creating citizenship revolutions, yet we content ourselves with tuning out. To sleep through it is now unconscionable, especially as it relates to what we leave the next generation. Everywhere we look we can see people sleeping under trees when they should be responding to the change. To not see that reality is to not see ourselves. It is to lose our identity just at the time we need it to adapt and grow.