We have all been watching change accelerate. We can find positive change if we try hard enough, but the degrading and destructive dominates the view. Civilization struggles to advance even as we are catapulted into crisis.
Faced with crises it can be hard to stay rational or to imagine a positive future. It is difficult to keep ones’ balance and there is little time to reflect. Can we see the potential for good in the experience of hardship and conflict?
So it is for a society, just as in our personal lives. We live in a world that tests us, always challenging us to learn and grow and mature.
Living with uncertainty, it can take courage to embrace the questions and accept the time it takes to grow into the answers.
I’ve been thinking about what is changing and why. And I am interested in the way our perceptions and responses are influenced by our sense of identity and character as persons. Can there be both positive and negative dimensions to the same experience? Can we allow ourselves to be influenced constructively—to see with new eyes and to refocus our values?
The inevitability of plural and conflicting values tests our strength of character. Never in history have human beings agreed on values.
Values are among the many things that define personal identity. And yet, as important as our values are, they cannot be nailed down. We sometimes forget that even our personal values can conflict with each other. As perplexing as this can be, it challenges us to grow and mature.
Our values are easily tested when the world is in turmoil. And, conflicting values can be especially uncomfortable when we encounter injustice.
While it is natural for values to be influenced by conditions or events, it is when we stop thinking for ourselves that we are caught by surprise. Living in a diverse, pluralistic society is always a challenge—and a special responsibility.
What is the bottom line?
Who are we, really? Who do we want to be?
Like values, our personal identity can never be set in stone, although bigotry and intolerance want to convince us otherwise.
Identity is formed of many things: Our families, the town or neighborhood where we came of age, our best friends and the schools we went to, our work experience or profession, our food habits, sports interests, taste in music, and social commitments. Some aspects of identity exist as assumptions we rarely think about, such as beliefs, values, hopes and dreams.
The fact is, we all have the same check-list despite our differences. And we are all making choices every day which reflect shifting priorities. This allows for the dynamic interplay of identities in a community, and provides us with the freedom to be ourselves. Importantly, it supports young people to develop their own distinct individuality.
Authentic community can also create a sense of belonging that supports personal individuality. However, that same sense of belonging can just as well exclude some people as it embraces others. A supportive community that feels like home, and in which we instinctively do wonderful things for each other, can also be a community where our youth instinctively throw bricks through the windows of newcomers who appear to be “different” in some way.
Identity politics can easily degenerate into identity conflict, a tragedy which ignores the rich diversity of human knowledge and character—and makes a mockery of our professed values.
A major source of divisiveness and hostility in the world today is the presumption that people can be categorized on the basis of a single attribute or association, to the exclusion of all others.
This is a recipe for disaster. We may love our children in the same way, suffer from the same illnesses, or enjoy the same food, but a blind dislike erases everything human.
And this is happening throughout the world—a mean-spirited ugliness with devastating consequences.
But here we have a choice that is uniquely American. As a constitutional republic with the experience and vision of a pluralistic democracy, we know we can be something different.
The freedom to be ourselves belongs to every American, even as we accept our differences.
This is who we are.
You may watch for the next post on or about December 7.
Note to new readers: An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available in draft at the top of the homepage.