July 2014

Being Better: Teetering and Tottering to Better Citizenship

Author: Kitty Bartell

I imagine I have been a citizen of more cities and towns than most, which has prompted some recent contemplation about my citizenship, geographically, electively, and within my family. Coming from a lineage who, for the most part stayed within the confines of one state, and immediate relatives who stayed within the same city limits for generations, my nomadic life didn’t exactly come naturally, or quickly. My first 22 years, I had two hometowns: the one where we went to school from September through May, and the other where we relocated for summers to a cottage on a Northern Michigan lake.

After marrying a man with wanderlust running through his veins, the places we have called home are (in order) Atlanta, Chicago, Hilton Head Island, Johannesburg, South Africa, East Lansing, Michigan, Hilton Head Island (again), St. Louis, Missouri, Cave Creek, Arizona, and (again) Hilton Head Island… so far. Reflecting on these homes and cities and towns, and countries, I feel grateful for all the adventures and opportunities; however, for the most part, I must admit I have taken my citizenship for granted. Upon deeper contemplation (a dangerous practice), my citizenship within my family, and the other communities to which I belong may have been a bit neglected as well. On my Being Better journey, I want to be a better citizen, and to succeed at that, I know a more balanced give and take will be mandatory.

Step one: define my citizenship. To whom do I belong and owe my allegiance? In other words, where do I take up space and draw resources? Responsible citizenship requires a balance of contribution with the use of resources; my citizenship is defined by the places and groups I inhabit and the resources I consume.
Consider the playground see-saw. Anyone who has climbed aboard a teetering and tottering long-board understands that each side of this childhood gizmo needs to carry approximately the same amount of weight, or someone is going to be slammed to ground in a rather jarring, and likely injurious manner. Good citizenship is much the same. The giving and taking should be relatively equal, and much like seeing and sawing, if they are not, one side will suffer.

So, to whom do I belong? First, my family. Citizenship in this particular community was divinely determined. I didn’t choose them, and they didn’t choose me. I am fortunate because they are pretty special individuals, and as a unit they are formidable. Further, they seem to like me, and I have not been criticized too often for my faults or failures (of which I am sure they could name a few). As is a child’s commission, I am certain I drew heavily on the resources of my family. Time, emotions, and financial resources were tapped (and probably sapped) on a frequent basis. The scales rarely balance during the years from crib to career; however, taking that imbalance into adulthood is not the kind of participation required for excellent citizenship status. As a member of my family, I owe it to them to be present when possible and participate whole-heartedly. When I am with them, whether physically or electronically, my focus will be sharper, and my input relevant. I will make time for them when I am needed, and show my appreciation for all they do.

Outside of family life, living in a neighborhood presents simple opportunities to be better citizens on a daily basis. After the work day, it may be tempting to pull into the garage, slip quietly indoors, and hide away from the world… or the neighbors. Warning: you could really be missing out on the real juice of life: personal connections. In my neighborhood, there are families, children, retired folks, and single people, and it seems at any given time of day several someones are walking or talking, chasing children or dogs, kicking soccer balls, or biking. A trip to the mailbox just 40 yards outside my front door has the potential to make me a better citizen. A whole lot of give and take happens during those 10 minute driveway chats or strolls down to the community dock, learning about celebrations and sorrows and changes happening on the block. Sending a card congratulating the state champ soccer goalie, taking dinner to someone recovering from surgery, mowing a neighbor’s lawn just for the heck of it, or collecting newspapers or mail for traveling neighbors will go a long way toward achieving this being better mission.

The citizenship we enjoy on a larger scale involves our towns, states, country, and world. Making an impact as a better citizen within these larger universes may seem daunting. Who is going to notice? How can I help balance my local life with my wider global existence? The broad laundry list is familiar: vote, stay informed, work hard, volunteer, reduce your energy footprint, and give more than you take. Being a better citizen will require making better decisions.

I may have the inclination to change the world; however, I know I do not have the time or energy, so I’m going to change my today. First, I will vote whenever there is an opportunity. Having lived in South Africa in the months following Nelson Mandela’s 1994 presidential election, I developed a clear understanding that we become less than is possible when we neglect this gift. I will pause before tossing anything in the trash. Can it be used again? Recycled? Our earth may be vast and seem limitless; however, it does have its limits, and I will try to lessen the burden I create. I will seek out opportunities to give my time or service to causes that could use me. I will make my decisions a little more consciously.

Being a better citizen will push me out into my community and into the world, where historically I know my take has been a little more than my give. Going forward, when I climb onto that see-saw, I will work hard to strike a more beneficial balance. 

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