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Citizenship 101 — Always tell the truth, help others when you can, and try to be a good human

By Chris Cole
Special to KyForward

I wish I could say that I had a master plan and worked it out so that I’d be writing about citizenship on election week, but a good Scout doesn’t lie – it’s just where we happen to be in the Scout Handbook.

I really liked Chapter 9: Scout Spirit and Citizenship. It covers common ground, but does so in a way that made me think about things a little differently.

The chapter frames citizenship through the lens of the Boy Scout oath, which is pretty much what you’d expect: I’ll obey the Scout Law, help others and keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.

Chris Cole and wife Megan learned a lot about citizenship when they visited Washington, D.C., a few years ago.

The book offers a brief history of other important oaths, including a full reprint of the Athenian Oath, which we’re told boys took upon turning 17 years old in ancient Athens. Given the current state of civility in our nation, I think it bears repeating here.

“We will never bring disgrace on this, our city, by an act of dishonesty or cowardice.

We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the city both alone and with many.

We will revere and obey the City’s laws, and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those about us who are prone to annul them or set them at naught. We will strive increasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty.

Thus in all ways we will transmit this city, not only not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

Those Athenians knew how to write an oath. It’s hard to read those words without feeling a sense of pride in and obligation to our own community.

The Handbook paints a picture of what it means to live up to ideals of the oath, including a few things I’ve never given much thought to, such as acknowledging and appreciating the privileges that come with living in Northern Kentucky in 2020 (yes, even in 2020).

I won’t say I’ve never thought about my own personal privilege, as a white, straight man in a society built in large measure by and for white, straight men. But that’s not the privilege covered in the Handbook.

It explores a different kind of privilege – one I usually overlook. “The comforts of your home,” the book points out, “the telephone, the electric light, your radio, all resulted from someone’s hard work and sacrifice.”

I recently spent probably 20 hours converting an old children’s dresser into a cart for tools in my garage. The project has been sitting there for weeks, 80 percent completed. (What can I say? I weren’t no Boy Scout.) I can’t even imagine how much sacrifice went into creating the telephone just so I have the luxury of not answering it.

Along with privilege comes opportunity, and the book eloquently points out that, “The American people speak as they think, worship as they choose, work where they wish, and publish and read what they select. Here is opportunity beyond belief.”

The 1952 Boy Scouts Handbook is guiding Chris Cole as he learns critical life skills. (Photo provided)

Of course, with such privileges and opportunities also comes great responsibility. Chapter 9 flows seamlessly into Chapter 10: Do Your Part.

While the book focuses on Scout citizenship, the concepts apply to all of us. I’m paraphrasing here, but some of those concepts include:

Help others when they need help, even if you think the job is beneath you.

Frankly, no job is beneath you. That’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. When we fool ourselves into believing that we’re better than the work that needs to be done, we dishonor ourselves and those who came before us.

Ours is a nation built on the backs of men and women far better than me. People like my dad, who has worked hard every day of his life. Dad worked at a paper bag factory that was usually hotter than the sun and he often came home exhausted, covered in ink and grime. That’s actually what inspired me to want to go to college; I knew I could never hack it in that world.

Or people, as the Handbook eloquently puts it, “whose shoulders grew bent by farming the stubborn soil of New England, men who wiped the sweat from their brows as they labored to build a railroad across the desert, needleworkers and small traders who toiled long hours into the night, seamen who sailed American clipper ships to the far corners of the earth.”

Surely I can rake the leaves in my yard.

Work cheerfully in all circumstances.

The Handbook stresses cheerful cooperation – doing whatever work is required with a smile and no complaints. I have some growing to do here.

It’s not that I’m unwilling to roll up my sleeves. Sure, I’ll help a friend move or volunteer on a community project when needed. But, not wishing to disgrace my city by an act of dishonesty, I have to say that I often do so grudgingly.

You’re moving next Sunday? Really? When the Bengals are finally starting to come around and are in Pittsburgh?

Have respect for yourself and others.

Every day, we use things that belong to other people. If your neighbor lends you a saw, let’s say to convert an old dresser into a tool cart, you should treat the saw at least as good as if it were your own. Use it properly, clean it and return it promptly.

But what about other things we use that aren’t ours? I’m embarrassed to admit that I am late in returning library books so often that I recognize the phone number when I receive the autodial reminder that I have overdue items.

Big picture, I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to how I use the world around me – literally, the Earth and its natural resources. I imagine my carbon footprint is relatively small, but can I honestly say I treat the Earth at least as good as if it were my own? Probably not.

Definitely not.

Be a good human.

This is wrapped up in the other ideas, but I think it’s worth calling out individually. Hard work, cheerful cooperation, respect and care for the things we use – yes, all of those are important. But you don’t have to help someone move, paint a community center or even return a saw promptly to be a good human.

We can all just be a little bit nicer to each other.

If you see someone who’s having a hard time, lend a word of encouragement or a helping hand. Don’t wait to be asked – many people are worried about being a burden and so they refuse to ask for help.

And don’t be afraid to do more than your fair share. Yes, by all rights there is a limit to your personal responsibilities in this world. But if you’re able to go beyond that limit to help your spouse or a neighbor or a total stranger, just do it. You’ll not only be helping them out, but you’ll also likely “quicken the public’s sense of civic duty.”

Until next time, Remember to be a good human and Do a Good Turn Daily!

Chris Cole is Director of Enterprise Communications at Sanitation District No. 1 in Northern Kentucky, and a deacon at Plum Creek Christian Church in Butler. He lives in Highland Heights with his wife, Megan. His column, The Man Scout, appear weekly at the Northern Kentucky Tribune, and chronicles Cole’s journey to acquiring some of the skills of the head, the heart and the hand he failed to learn as a child of the 1980s growing up in Newport. His field guide: a 1952 Boy Scouts Handbook he found on eBay.

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