Change has been accelerating for years. Americans are well aware of the steady debasement of civil order, if we have been alive long enough to see it. Our economic lives have deteriorated for at least a generation—sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly. Little is left of the middle class. Trouble began long before the pandemic.
Being human, it is tempting to look for blame. But blame gets us nowhere in a crisis. It is really not possible for any of us to fully understand or respond effectively to the magnitude of structural change confronting the world.
Are we strong enough to step back from the barrage of fragmented and incoherent headlines, media sound-bites and images, which bombard our minds? Is it possible to think without reacting? How otherwise can we defend ourselves from manipulation in advertising and politics?
Our greatest challenge is to investigate truth for ourselves and not through the minds of others.
I suggest we each stop to check our motives regularly every day, and to think about what are we learning through all this—about life and about ourselves.
Change can sometimes help us to see with new eyes. Perceptions, values, and sense of purpose all evolve throughout our lives—sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly. But maturity only comes when we think for ourselves.
Some change is masked by chaos and not so easy to see. Increasing complexity is an example: A threat today that is difficult to understand and quite capable of disrupting our lives suddenly and without notice.
I have raised concerns about complexity here in the past.
Complexity has increased rapidly with advancing technologies and an interconnected world. A multiplicity of interdependent systems, subject to intense disconnected forces, leads inevitably to instability and unexpected crises.
And when our lives are disrupted, our values come under pressure. Confused values undermine self-confidence and our sense of identity.
Having shared values with those around us always feels good, but, in fact, everyone is different. Never in history have human beings agreed on values. Even our own personal values can sometimes conflict. Have you noticed?
The presence of plural and conflicting values in this life tests character and challenges unsupported assumptions. Which is why we need to stand on our own two feet.
But we also need dependable neighbors in a crisis! Can we agree on just a few things? How about respect for personal dignity? Or the value of individual autonomy that refrains from imposing on others?
Do we recognize the virtues and values that undergird safety and stability in our communities?
Can we see that a safe and prosperous society, economically and otherwise, will depend on personal virtues: on truthfulness, for example, and responsibility?
Justice and morality are closely related, and we learn about them in the trenches. Hardship generates new thinking, as I have said. It is when we stop thinking that we resist awareness and miss opportunities.
Responding to a changing world begins within ourselves. Who are we, really? Who do we want to be?
Yes, we are human—we are not perfect. But let’s get something straight: There are no shortcuts to the future. Freedom depends on responsibility, and moral responsibility cannot be left half done.
America has always been a work in progress, but we are living today in a time of extremes. We are witnessing rapid ongoing deterioration of moral character, self-discipline, and social responsibility.
Mass murder, pornography, sexual violence: To name just a few among many. All have proliferated at an appalling rate. We see social degradation and abasement all around us.
Regaining strength in America is a personal matter. It will require responsibility, courage, and steadfast patience. To engage in constructive action with our neighbors—to seek safety and to meet common needs—will mean engaging with differences. Americans value individuality, diversity, liberty. Am I right?
The United States is, by definition, a pluralistic society. This will always be a challenge and responsibility.
Before we can begin to secure an acceptable future, we will need first to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences.
Danger confronts us all, without exception.
You may look for the next post on or about July 26.
A note to readers: An introduction to the coming book can be found linked at the top of the homepage, along with sample chapters exploring the history of ideas and conflicting values that have brought us to this place.