In 2003, when his country was 227 years old, a young man fell into a canyon from which he could not escape. He wrote a book about it. Now it's a movie — the grisly 127 Hours reduced to 93 minutes.
Aron Ralston had been on an excursion in southeastern Utah, biking, canyoneering and observing archaeological sites that contain hundreds of petroglyphs, in particular the haunting 5,000-year-old etchings and paintings along Barrier Creek.
Walking forward on foot, he was moving backward in time, through the American past to a prehistoric era.
As I read the book and watched the film, I could not help thinking that his fall was a parable of his country.
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When Ralston slipped, he dislodged a boulder that hurtled into the deep, narrow canyon, smashing one of his arms and trapping him there.
Trained as an engineer, he had the latest equipment for hiking and rappelling; he would have to employ all of it to extricate himself.
When his country fell into the Great Recession five years later, it was the world's unquestioned leader. Now, in 2010, its economic, political and military hegemony is faltering. It will take more than knowledge, fancy equipment and technology to dig out of the hole we've dug for ourselves.
Wisdom, patience and discipline will also be required, perhaps like those of the peoples who inhabited Barrier Creek for centuries without polluting or destroying it.
At first, Ralston hoped to be saved by a miracle: a wandering hiker or ranger might discover him. But he had broken the cardinal rule of solo excursionists by not informing friends, family or authorities about his itinerary. He was a lone wolf, paying the penalty for his selfishness: He would have to rescue himself.
As it began to totter, Ralston's country failed to honor treaties signed by nearly all large nations — like the Kyoto Protocol on the environment — and violated the Geneva Convention by torturing prisoners in Iraq, in eastern European countries and at Guantanamo Bay. The United States would suffer the consequences of its errors and hubris: Now it must save itself.
When Ralston studied his predicament with a lucid mind, he did not panic, but realized that he would have to conserve his supplies and energy.
Americans waste 40 percent of the food produced in the country, spend $320 million on gasoline every day in Afghanistan alone. If we analyzed our situation clearly, perhaps we would cease squandering resources. But maybe not. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond shows that cultures knowingly make decisions whose consequences eventually ruin them.
In the light of reason, perhaps we would stop depending so much on foreign oil and financing; China owns $1 trillion of American stocks and bonds.
And if we ever wanted to balance our state and national budgets, perhaps we would admit to the necessity of raising taxes — something that many of us would accept as a civic duty, without complaint.
But maybe not. Syndicated columnist Thomas Friedman said recently, "... America will do nothing serious to fix its structural problems: a ballooning deficit, declining educational performance, crumbling infrastructure and diminished immigration of new talent."
Columnist David Brooks believes that the U.S., "more than any other country," is "immobilized" by political pride and partisanship that make significant action and compromise impossible.
Columnist Kathleen Parker has called moderation the "new heresy."
"You're lazy and you know it," Ralston told himself in the midst of his plight. Listen, America. "You slothful waste. You're killing yourself ...You're going to die."
When he began to run out of strength and supplies, the young man took a desperate, extreme measure, one that has made viewers faint in theaters: He amputated his own right arm.
With the same tenacity shown by Ralston, the United States will also have to cut its losses. One arm for waste and unwinnable wars, maybe even another to learn humility and restraint.
Perhaps we will then be able to climb out of the canyon into the light, mutilated but chastened, and return to our families, friends and community for healing.