Our personal individuality is something we take for granted today. But this was not always so. Individual freedom was a new and treasured idea in colonial America. Many of those who came from England and Europe felt they were escaping tyranny. And the institution of slavery had an imposing presence as well. Colonial America knew what it did not want.
Concern with individualism, a deep-seated reaction against the autocratic rigidity of Medieval Europe, was dominant on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th century.
An active sense of individuality encourages intellectual and artistic creativity. It motivates entrepreneurial initiative. And it led to the immensely productive energy of the American spirit.
It also opens the door to undisciplined free-will, to the potential for unrestrained violence, and the rampant materialism we see today.
Self-centeredness came to be defended as the purpose of life. Breaking free from society to assert oneself without restraint was venerated as a romantic ideal. The Lone Ranger became the quintessential American hero.
This begs a question! Can freedom be idolized and defended without accepting responsibility for what makes it possible?
In other words, can freedom, as an ideal, respect the integrity and well-being of the society that respects and protects freedoms?
Individual liberty has sometimes been associated with egotism and selfishness. But the concept was originally conceived as respect for the validity of the views and experience of the individual within his or her own sphere, and the ideal that each of us should be encouraged to develop our own natural gifts.
By 1776 and the founding of the United States, “enlightenment thinking” had crystallized into the conviction that an ideal future civilization would bring freedom and prosperity to the world through the progress of science and rational governance.
To many the United States of America came to embody that promise. The practical implications were, however, swept under the carpet.
The limits to freedom imposed by physical reality and the constraints of a complex society might seem obvious. But many of our compatriots appear unaware of the practical responsibilities that liberty implies.
This is not a simple problem. We face limits to our freedom every day. We care for our families, whatever that requires, and cooperate with the requirements of our employment.
In addition, we commit ourselves willingly to civic responsibilities, athletic teams or dance recitals for our kids, charitable organizations and religious communities, all of which can take up most of our wakeful hours.
And the hard realities of structural change and a multitude of converging crises are suddenly closing in around us. Everything is changing.
Will we simply flounder about trying to place blame? Or will we step up to necessity? This is a truly historic challenge.
Many things can chafe in life, particularly the actions of other people. Domineering and dysfunctional institutions are aggravating, especially in a time of deteriorating social stability. Yet, human beings are quite capable of rising above our difficulties to create meaning and purpose in the community we live in.
Americans in the 21st Century face simple questions in complex circumstances: What do we value? What is it that humanity gained with the founding of the United States? How do we wish to take it forward?
Will we step forward to create a coherent future with our neighbors despite our differences and the many hardships we face? Without moral responsibility and respectful dialogue, undisciplined free-will leads to disarray.
Let’s pull ourselves together to correct the misinformation, miscommunication, and useless negativity that subverts good will and our best intentions. Truly, an inquiring mind and respectful attitude are of greater importance today than ever before.
Patience, trustworthiness, and dependability are the hallmarks of a safe community. They do not require sameness of religion, politics, or philosophy. Americans do not need to agree on these things in order to collaborate with neighbors on specific projects to address shared goals.
Communities that persevere together can learn the ways of constructive action—engaging everyone in the efforts to create safety, to resolve neighborhood problems and meet local needs.
I never said it would be easy.
We are adults. We are capable. We can do it.
You may watch for the next post on or about January 2.
Note to readers: Links to an introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters can be found at the top of the homepage.