To be an American is not a talent. It's not a craft or skill discovered and manifested early in life that is honed and mastered so that we perform with pride as others marvel at this singular talent.
We didn't will ourselves into existence or align the stars and our bloodlines in our favor so that we would be born in the United States.
When we say that we're proud to be an American it should be with the acknowledgement that everyone should be proud of his or her birthright.
To be an American and enjoy freedoms that come with it is a gift of fortune, and it must never be forgotten that, but for the grace of God, Allah, Jehovah or whatever divine or nondivine powers one believes put us here, life could have been less fortunate.
But for forces over which we don't possess the talent to change, instead of enjoying barbecue and baseball today, we could just as easily be the dissident languishing in a Chinese prison, a child soldier forced to take up arms in Uganda or Sri Lanka, or a girl trapped as a sex slave in Pakistan.
Were we them, the Fourth of July would be stripped of all its glory and meaning. At best it would be irrelevant; at worse, it would be what Frederick Douglass, in 1852, said it was to the American slave: a day that mocks us with its cruelty.
It's because we're not that Chinese dissident, that Ugandan or Sri Lankan child soldier, that Pakistani sex slave or, no longer, that American slave, that the Fourth of July is as much about Thanksgiving as is the fourth Thursday of November.
This is a great day for celebration and rededication.
A celebration of the liberties and opportunities that are abundant here, but also a rededication to preserving and expanding them and promising ourselves that we will never retreat from honoring the equality of men and women and the protection of their life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
A reminder that while we may never be a "more perfect Union," we can't afford complacency, and that in trying to be perfect we at least become better.
There is no contradiction in loving this country passionately while exercising those freedoms of speech and the right to dissent that are among the reasons we love it so much. No love for anything or anyone should be so blind as to ignore those flaws, which hurts it and hinders its progress.
Like the French Nobel laureate Albert Camus, writing to an imaginary German friend during World War II, each of us should be able to love our country and still love justice.
Equally shortsighted are those who believe that dissent is treasonous, who wish to narrowly define patriotism and who forget that any critique of policies and where we are as a nation is made out of love and the faith that we can be better.
Abraham Lincoln, the most gifted writer of all our presidents, ended his second inaugural address with an oft-quoted paragraph that can never be repeated enough.
He was speaking to a nation at war with itself, but his words also speak to how we must engage each other and this nation's unfinished work:
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations."
Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News on July 4, 2006