A nation of storytellers

Published 7:58 am Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I remember when my youngest son was 6 years old and came running into the house, his hair disheveled from playing outside and his cheeks rosy from the brisk air. He stopped right in front of me, out of breath and clearly trying to tell me a story. But the combination of his out-of-control-breathing and his obvious excitement were just too much of a challenge for his six-year-old vocabulary. As he stumbled over his words trying desperately to spit out the story, his older brother followed him in the house and, in typical big-brother fashion, started to tell the story for him. I could see my youngest son shaking his head and growing visibly frustrated at his brother until he finally caught his words, threw up his hands and said “No! You’re telling it all wrong. That’s not how the story is supposed to go!”

America is a nation of storytellers. We all like to share stories — stories from our days, stories from our childhoods, stories from our life experiences. From a young age, we learn how to tell stories. It is a glimpse into our lives. It is a piece of who we are. But we also know that we hold the details to our own stories and know how the story should be told, and we get frustrated at anyone who tries to tell it differently.

The last several years have brought great challenges for our families, our communities, and our nation. We are living in a moment in America’s story when we, as a nation, are back on our heels. Families have lost jobs, homes, retirement savings. Small business owners have watched as demand for their products and services has dwindled, along with the funds to meet their payroll, let alone create new jobs. Communities are scrambling to find ways to meet basic law enforcement, fire, and transportation needs. Parents and teachers are worried about impending growth in classroom sizes as our school systems face continued cuts. There is a fog of uncertainty hovering over America. We are at a bleak moment in our story.

But even in spite of this reality, Americans remain some of the most giving people in the world. Despite economic hardship, Americans continue to give about $300 billion a year to charities. According to the American Enterprise Institute, charitable giving as a whole has generally risen faster than the growth of the American economy for more than half a century. Americans typically give, per capita, three and a half times as much to causes and charities as the French, seven times as much as the Germans, and 14 times as much as the Italians.

No matter how tough times get, Americans still continue to give. This generous spirit has been woven throughout our nation’s story since the founding of our great democracy. Political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville once observed that “The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.”

Today, our charities, churches, community colleges, housing nonprofits, free care clinics, food kitchens and job training centers remain on the front lines meeting the challenges spurred by our economic situation. They are telling the story of Americans as a generous people.

But there is an even greater truth at play here than simply Americans’ generosity — and that is the fact that Americans understand they have the freedom to give. Americans have the ability to put their money where they believe it will do the most good. As a result, Americans understand intimately and personally the causes to which they donate, and our non-profit organizations and churches have the incentive to design creative and efficient programs to meet the needs of the people they see face-to-face every day.

Innate within America is the truth that the best ideas don’t reside in the halls of Congress, or around a Committee table, or in the marble walls of a courtroom. The best ideas rest within the homes of individuals Americans and those who are serving their communities on the front lines.

Unfortunately, our federal government has lost sight of this truth and, much like the big brother, has tried to take over the story. In their push for big government, leaders in Washington have placed federal government squarely in the role of the “storyteller,” as well as having us believe that all giving best comes from Washington.

The truth is Americans know how to tell their stories and manage their lives — including their financial lives — better than any government entity can.

It is Americans — not the federal government — who are the creators, collectors and keepers of the story of our nation. And if we empower Americans to continue to carry the story, we will see a momentum, an ingenuity, a force — a story — that is unmatched across the world.