Jean Cheney: Finding common ground in one simple word

We need more moderate voices to take stronger stances for reason and calm.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marchers carry a giant American Flag, in the Cherry Days Fourth of July Parade, in North Ogden, on Monday, July 4, 2022.

“God Please Bless America.”

I couldn’t make out the full message at first, because the “please” was in white paint and a little more faded than the rest. The “God” in red, “bless” in blue, and “America” in red were all easy, but that faded word in between? What was it? It took me a while to know.

The words were painted on a hand-made wooden sign fastened to the back of an old pick-up truck, traveling with us on I-84 from Boise to Mountain Home. We were behind this old truck for a while, passing the dry hills of southern Idaho together, the sagebrush and grass, the flat stretches in between the hills with nothing notable but an occasional dark cow down by a creek or a hawk flying against the pale sky.

I had seen plenty of signs imploring God to bless this country over the years — yard signs, political banners. I had heard the words at the end of almost every campaign speech. I had sung the words in school since the third grade in a song that was a happy alternative to the nearly unsingable, for ordinary voices, national anthem. It was not a new message, so why did this one catch my eye?

That “please.” That single word turned the familiar message into something different. This didn’t sound like an order — God Bless America — but a plea. This sign beseeched. It was an entreaty, not an expectation.

And it suggested that the writer of that sign felt that we’re in trouble. We need help. We’re not getting any closer to bridging our great divides, closing the gap on our mistrust. With each passing week, as we head into campaign season, I sense the same fear in a lot of us right now, whether we align red or blue, whether we believe in God or not, whether we think a deity would trouble itself with a nation’s future.

There is no desperation in “God Bless America,” but there was in this crude, earnest sign.

Please. We have problems we can’t seem to resolve, divisions that keep getting deeper.  Most of us think the country is going in the wrong direction — but for vastly different reasons. No one knows the way out of our conflicts, our terrible hatreds of each other that are only becoming worse. This wasn’t an insistence to make America great again, or a claim that America was never great. The old pick-up truck carried a humble prayer, not a slogan to rally crowds.

Maybe that sign offers some common ground. We need to acknowledge that we’re in trouble, and no one has the answers, certainly not all of them.  Maybe we can start there, recognizing that we don’t get anywhere assuming the worst of each other. A little humility, please. A little awareness of how desperate our situation is and the real effort it will take to get out of it.

Lately, I have a sense that, as William Butler Yeats noted from a hurting Ireland years ago, “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of a passionate intensity.” We need more moderate voices to take stronger stances for reason and calm. For ordinary people to stand up and say, “Enough! I won’t assume the worst of my neighbor whom I don’t know. I won’t fear people who look or think differently from me. I won’t believe someone who votes for the ‘other’ party hates America or lacks all virtue.”

Let’s talk and listen more, shout less. Maybe that is the blessing we need most.

Jean Cheney

Jean Cheney is a retired educator who has lived in Salt Lake City since 1997.