Last week I joyously watched as my 40-year-old son introduced my 4-year-old grandson to the ocean. Because my dad was a career Naval officer, I was raised on the shores of this country, and have been swimming in salt water seas since before my first memory. The sight of my offspring reawakened a 35- year-old memory of my son’s own initial reaction to the surf, and his subsequent growth. It may contain insights for us all.

Facing the unexpected

Back in the 1980s, my son, like many kids in this community, learned to swim at Lincoln Park pool. On a visit to my brother in California, we headed to my favorite beach near San Diego. On the way, I extolled the delights of the surf and the sand. We parked and sprinted to the water. I plunged in, looked around, and saw that my little boy had stopped at the water’s edge, gazing with wide-eyed wonder at the vast ocean.

In response to my encouragement to join me, he said three things: “This is really big.” “You can’t see in it.” “Are there sharks in this ocean?” Whereupon, he sat down, content to play in the shallows. Over the years, he mastered the waves, and now loves to swim and snorkel among tropical fish, majestic turtles, and colorful coral formations. It just took time … and the courage to embrace something new.

Fearing the unknown

At times, most humans have an instinctive fear of the unknown. It can appear when encountering strangers, including those who come to live in our country. Many of us fear the impact of immigrants and their different languages, religions, clothes, and customs. This apprehension is not uniquely American. Nativist movements are on the rise in France, Germany and other nations, with an appeal to the purity of yesteryear that strikes a chord of fearing a changed future.

Perhaps we can understand a French or Scandinavian concern about the dilution of its homogeneous heritage. But America is different. Cultural intrusions, interactions, and conflicts have been our DNA since the beginning. Our country was settled by competing cultures: Spanish, French, English. Even in the diverse English colonies on the Atlantic seaboard, there was little affection and less trust among the Puritans of New England, the high Anglicans of Virginia, the Catholics of Maryland, the Quakers of Pennsylvania and the Dutch Reformed of New York.

Jefferson’s expansion of the country toward the Pacific Ocean brought cultural clashes with French, Spanish, and Native Americans. Back on the East coast, each successive wave of immigrants from a different culture was resisted by those whose ancestors had emigrated a few decades before, but who feared the strangeness of newer arrivals. My paternal German ancestors were disdained by British colonists in the 1700s; a century later, their descendants shunned my maternal Irish forebears. Ensuing waves of Italians, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, Turks, Russian, Jews, Koreans, Vietnamese and many others were all met with prejudice. Such resistance might be understandable as a matter of psychology; it is less so through the lens of history, because this coalition of cultures created America.

Immigrants helped us beat Hitler in the World War II race for the atom bomb, and overtake the Soviet Union in the space race to the moon. The children of immigrants — like Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Carlos Santana, and the founders of McDonalds and YouTube – significantly defined today’s America.

Immigrants expanded our celebrations to encompass Mardi Gras, Christmas trees and St. Patrick’s Day parades. Our cuisine includes bagels, burritos, baklava, grits, pizza, pasta, stroganoff, sushi and crepes. Musically, we mixed the Scots-Irish ballads of Appalachia with the jazz of New Orleans and gospel spirituals from the Deep South, where not even the bonds of slavery could prevent the assimilation of excellence. America is the most successful conglomeration of cultures in history.

Finding the common thread

Unifying this rich diversity is the one common trait of every émigré from every generation: courage. Every one of our forebears had the guts to cross an ocean in a small boat, or a desert on foot, or the sheer strength of will to survive slavery. The timid stayed home; the brave ventured into the unknown, and built the next chapters of America, continuously improving us as a nation. If the next wave looks different in its dress, language, hair, skin tone, or worship, well, so it has always been.

Over the centuries, America, flawed though it may be, has led the world in the advocacy of liberty, the primacy of individual rights, and the gradual — too gradual for too many decades — eradication of barriers based on property, religion, race, or gender. The Olympics, commencing this week, remind us that courage and excellence is found in every culture. Let nativist movements take hold in other soil; we celebrate the promise of the Statue of Liberty and the proven enrichment of assimilation. Like our forebears, and like my son and grandson, we can have the courage to embrace the unknown, and savor the wonders that will come with it.

Steve ErkenBrack is an attorney in western Colorado, where he settled in 1979. He has served as a trial attorney, as the elected district attorney, as a health insurance CEO, and as Colorado’s chief deputy attorney general. He is currently Of Counsel at Hoskin, Farina & Kampf in Grand Junction.