What History Can Teach Us: United We Stand Divided We Fall

I meant to post this post last night and really I have been meaning to post this for days. The world keeps moving so fast. In this moment, I am devastated that I have to add this preface. Please know that my sentiment does not change. It is actually stronger.

Most of you know the news. The United States experienced the worst mass shooting in US history. Here is how I received the news:  I awoke to a text from Kyle. He had gone to school early for a chemistry lab.  He wanted to let me know there was a mass shooting in Las Vegas, and that 50 (now 59) people were killed and over 500 injured by a lone gunman, a Mesquite, Utah resident. The man was shooting from his hotel room on the 32 floor.  Then Kyle sent me this link with the following comment:

“it’s relevant to the mass shooting in Vegas.”

As a mom, I need to listen to what my children are saying and what they are saying is that they are confused. They do not understand why all the gun violence. They do not understand why people fight so hard to keep their guns. They think things are worse and they want it to stop. As a parent, what can I do? First, I can open my mouth and support them. I can show them that I agree. All these gun deaths are not ok.

Because we travel often overseas, people often warn us to be safe and to make sure we are not going to be in spots near “terrorists.”  When we traveled to the UK earlier this summer, we received the same admonition. That same week here in Utah, a mother and her two children were gunned down by a crazy ex boyfriend as the woman walked her children home from school. Before another one of our family overseas trips, a dad, who lives just a few short miles from us, was shot and killed as he chase a burglar down the street. Recently on a beautiful summer evening, we were at a park with friends. In the distance we saw random teenagers loudly playing basketball.  At one, a dad of one of Kyle’s friends, looked at us,  pointed at his gun and said,

“Don’t  worry. I am packing heat. I always pack heat and I am not afraid to use it.”

This dad was not joking.

Because these warning signs often seep into our psyche, such as a dad flashing a gun in a safe, suburban park, Dave, the boys and I maintain a consistent dialog regarding violence and what we think our response to it should be. That night, we tried to deescalate the fears of the dad flashing his gun. What Dave & I have concluded is that ultimately we do not want our boys to become afraid of this beautiful world.

Nevertheless, I cannot ignore that we live in Utah, a state with a large gun lobby and a huge gun-supporting population. Many of our friends love their guns. They confidently proclaim that everyone should own a gun because guns save lives. I am sure they think I am crazy because guns terrify me. I try to understand their perspective. We try to understand each other (I think). I have asked them why they feel this way? I am always hearted to hear that most of them want a ban on assault rifles. We both know that I do not feel the same way they do. As a result,  we often agree to disagree.

But guess what? I do not think any of us should be ok with what happened in Las Vegas. Why can’t we stop blaming and simply work to make things better? And really, how bad does our world have to get for things to change? Mostly, we need to pay attention to each other. We need to love each other. We need to get along.

Dave & I Castillo San Cristóbal National Historic Site, San Juan, Puerto Rico, December, 2016


A cord of three united strands is stronger than a single strand. Three strands bound together is also more complex. The strands can braid together in various configurations. If one strand breaks, the other two fill in as support. I think like the cord, the same goes for us humans, when we unite, we are also stronger. Ultimately, I would suggest that as humans our backstory, or better, our identity, our politics, our religion, or lack therefore only increases the strength of our bond. 

Dave, Castillo San Cristóbal National Historic Site, San Juan, Puerto Rico, December 2016

I want to be fair. I realize that if I am going to sound a little preachy or pull the “pay attention to history” card, I should actually know where the phrase, “united we stand, divided we fall,” comes from. In truth, I always thought, “united we stand, divided we fall” was synonymous with the birth of United States of America. I imagined it went something like this: During a profound battle, Revolutionary War soldiers standing their ground. When all hope was lost, one of the soldiers would rise from the battle fog, repeatedly shouting, “united we stand, divided we fall.” Can you hear the soundtrack now? Yes. It is also true that the phrase was used at various times in early American history. Patrick Henry used it. He was very vocal in his political views as a public orator. In fact, he was the guy who, in 1775, literally uttered that famous phrase, “give me liberty, or give me death.” It was in March 1799, two months before his death, when he speaking publicly, he proclaimed,

“Let us trust God, and our better judgment to set us right hereafter. United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs.”

Yes, it would (obviously) make sense why he used those words, “united we stand divided we fall.” And if Patrick Henry can us anything now, I think he wanted us to know what happens when we “split into factions:” Our “union” is destroyed, and as a result our very “existence” is threatened. Ok. But then do we unite with you, or do you unite with me? Better, whose opinions do we follow? That is why I realized what history is trying to teach me: it is not about opinions it is about strength.

Dave, Castillo San Cristóbal National Historic Site, San Juan Puerto Rico, December, 2016

I think I get the point and as a result,  I want to attribute the incarnation of those words right into the bold and thoughtful speeches of our founding fathers. I can’t. In reality,  the phrase, “united we stand, divided we fall,” actually traces to the Greek storyteller Aesop, who used them in his fable The Four Oxen and the Lion,” and indirectly in another, “The Bundle of Sticks.”

Here is how “The Four Oxen and the Lion” goes: A lion was stalking four oxen. Each time the lion would approach one of the oxen, as a warning sign to the others, another oxen would turn and wag its tail. When the lion reached the oxen, it was always met by their protective horns. One day the oxen started arguing among themselves. Frustrated with their contrasting opinions, each oxen fled and went to a separate area of the field. Then, one by one, the lion attacked and eventually killed all four oxen. The story ends: “United we stand, divided we fall.” (Ouch! I am seeing a pattern.)

Looking at San Juan in the distance at Castillo San Cristóbal National Historic Site, Puerto Rico

And that is why I keep asking myself,

“Why does it take repeating history, or until we are on the brink of death and or extreme catastrophe for humanity to face the reality that we are better together than we are apart?”

Let me slow down the life lesson and push back on myself. First, I think our separateness, better, our identity is extremely important. I also recognize that I cannot adequately deconstruct all aspects of identity here. Simply put, I like who I am (a little left of moderate). Broadly put, I am reminded of my return to college. As an English major I was introduced to colonialism and postcolonial literature. “Colonialism is the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” In his book, “Decolonizing the Mind,” Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o eloquently states,

“In colonial conquest, language did to the mind what the sword did to the bodies of the colonized.”

That is why I wonder if in our contemporary world if Facebook, Social Media, or 24-hour cable news have similar effects. I wonder if it would help to correlate, say, social media’s influence to colonialism? Would it help to know that as a result of colonialism, the colonized nation’s language and culture were often wiped out? At least with social media we still have a choice what culture we want to be a part of(?) It was my well-intended professor who again reminded us how learning about history, such as the consequences colonialism, can actually teach us how not to repeat its same mistakes.  

If we do not want to repeat the past, if we do not want another World War then how can we be better now? I do not think the answer is easy. I think it will take a lot of humility and empathy from all sides. Honestly, I wonder if we can. For starters, we all seem to think we are either victims, or we are better, more worthy, more entitled, more patriotic or maybe just afraid. Entitled behavior is reflected in our conversations. Often discussion are centered on our response instead of our listening. We get so caught up in speaking our truth that I think we forget to hear — myself included.  And maybe that is why I worry.  If we cannot communicate on this basic level, how are we going to better the world around us? Recently there have been two deadly hurricanes. I am confused. Why are people persisting to talk about the American flag while people are dying in Puerto Rico? Similarly, I think the people talking about the flag must think I am unpatriotic because I want to talk about Puerto Rico. Does that make sense? As a result, the vast communication divide terrifies me. See, as I studied colonialism I was also able to correlate patterns of control. I learned how slowly division and disrespect seep in. Then one day we are justifying the eradication of entire societies. Ultimately, identity shaming fed the fire that ruined these societies. And that is why respecting cultural identity (as long as you are not hurting anyone) is imperative to our survival.  

Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant, Conwy County Borough, North Wales
Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant, Conwy County Borough, North Wales

In fact, I saw identity preservation first hand this past summer. Dave, the boys and I we were able to visit Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant, which is a house located in the Wybrnant Valley, in the community of Bro Machno, near Betws-y-Coed in Conwy County Borough, North Wales (yes, a mouthful). Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant is the birthplace of Bishop William Morgan, first translator of the whole Bible into Welsh. Because Bishop William Morgan translated the bible into Welsh, he was able to preserve the Welsh language. As such, he was also able to preserve the Welsh identity against the strong colonial influence of the English. I found it interesting that a man who works for the National Trust actually lives full time at the Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant barn. After we toured the property, Kyle and I went back to speak with him. He shared with me that until recently, kids in school were single out and punished for speaking Welsh. He said,

“It was this bible translation that saved our people. And I will fight to save us too.”  

He explained that Welsh is actually his first language and that he also recognizes the importance of speaking English. And yes, his relationship with his neighbor to the east is tense, but also necessary. He makes it work and wants to make it work.

The boys & I at Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant, Conwy County Borough, North Wales
Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant, Conwy County Borough, North Wales

That is when it occurred to me, identity does not have to mean divided. Dropping our barriers does not mean losing our identity either. In fact, I would argue that the phrase “united we stand, divided we fall” implies that remaining true to ourselves is imperative for a society’s survival. 

This is our moment. This is our history to make. What will we do? Will we focus on how we are all different or will we extend a hand?   Some suggest unity is about learning how to disagree with each other. I think that is a great start. I would also argue that a person needing rescue in Puerto Rico this week would not care if an aid worker is someone who stands, kneels or sits during the National Anthem. My guess is that someone who has gone without fresh drinking water for several days really does not care what color the skin is on the hand handing them the cup. Further, I do not think the people who were being plucked off of their rooftops in Houston quizzed the helicopter pilot before boarding:

“Did you vote for Clinton or Trump? Oh you voted for Clinton, well, I am not getting on your aircraft.”

I would imagine that they were just grateful for these lifesaving efforts.

 In truth, dropping personal biases and barriers is actually what creates unity. So what if Kyle mixes the bananas more fervently than I would.  Does it mean his banana bread will suck?  Absolutely not. It means I need to let go of my control. I may think you are insane for watching 24-hour cable news and you make think I am a crazy “Obamacare”-loving liberal.  Setting bias aside, my guess is that we both care about people who are suffering. And maybe it is time to take a deep breath, start assuming the best in others, and unite just because people are hurting and need our help. And you know what? History has also shown us this: when we stand together we are strong. So let’s not be those oxen who could not figure out how to get along. Because what did the lion teach us: that had they remained united, he would not have been able to eat them. 

Dave & I, Puerto Rico, December, 2016

And as humans, I just hope death and destruction is not what it takes to get us there.