Freedom or Paralysis

We all know the discomfort of unwelcome constraints imposed by our workplace, our families, and society in general. Freedom for the individual, it seems, is relative. As we mature we come to see purpose in the underlying order of things and recognize that often we cannot advance our interests without it.

We generally understand and accept the limitations we experience in life, however much they chafe. Still there are aspects of freedom we value highly despite the complications and challenges they present.

As individuals we value freedom of opportunity. We also have preferences concerning the control of processes that impact on our personal lives, and preferences concerning the processes that operate in society.

There is much of value to discuss here, but I wish to focus on our response to life’s inevitable constraints, especially in the context of crises, and the choices we can make if we wish to work effectively with others.

There are rules we accept that regulate such things as athletic contests and the marketplace, which make it possible to ensure fairness, to strategize and compete. And, it is the certainty of fairness and predictability that allows an economy to be productive and our lives to be sane.

Similarly, it is fairness, honesty and respectfulness that are most conducive to constructive dialog and decision-making in any organization or community. This is what leads to trust, and trust is essential if we are to reach our compatriots.

When we find ourselves confronted with unpredictable and chaotic conditions, our first steps can always be to address the need for order that allows respectful and meaningful communication.

Progress toward social and economic reconstruction in our communities will require that we work together in a civil manner, regardless of our differences. Problem-solving cannot take place otherwise.

We cannot assure safety in our communities or create effective organization if form and structure, or varied opinions, are viewed as limitations to liberty.

The iconic conservative philosopher Richard Weaver, who we heard from in the previous post, would say this goal represents a formidable task; that it would require us to confront a national character uncomfortable with form, resistant to leadership, and impatient with any systematic process. He called America “a nation which egotism has paralyzed.”

We have seen how this egotism has diverted our attention from serious purpose: in our infatuation with expensive toys, in our descent into personal and public indebtedness, and in a sordid media voyeurism that forgoes all pretensions of privacy. Weaver called it “the spirit of self, which has made the [citizen] lose sight of the calling of his task and to think only of aggrandizement.”

Is it this “spirit of self” that has led us to the meaningless disorder in which we now find ourselves, where self-indulgence overwhelms motivation, rational judgment, and foresight?

I see some truth in this, but I believe we must look more deeply into the character of a people who have risen to every test in the past. Americans are smart, resilient, and creative. In the difficult years ahead I expect we will gain a deeper understanding of freedom and will respond with a maturity imposed by necessity.

All form has structural limits. It is the consistent dependability of this reality that allows us to launch ourselves into new frontiers of learning and experience, to control the direction of our efforts, to instigate, organize, create.

Without the constraints of necessity, which include our own values, we would have no capacity to direct our energy and intelligence, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

For the individual, the ability to exercise discipline overcomes the limitations imposed by nature and society. Surely the discipline to leverage inspiration against the constraints we encounter in life provides the power to actualize our freedom and transcend the material difficulties in life.

We cannot leap without a firm foundation beneath our feet; we cannot fly without wings.

It is in the encounter between discipline and necessity that we find the ground of freedom.


Next week: The freedom within.

Dear readers: Your thoughts and feedback will be very helpful to me.

Renewal of Our Core Values

Answering questions about what has gone wrong is never comfortable. Some truths are not pretty. But, revitalizing core American values and the restoration of a once vibrant civic spirit will require that we recognize what has been lost and why. I believe an honest appraisal is in order.

The current difficulties have developed over a long period of time. The gradual loss of a commitment to integrity in all areas of life has left Americans without the interwoven fabric of community relationships, without a soulful center or shared sense of purpose.

We find ourselves dominated by materialism and immersed in a homogenized culture with little conscious identity. Where is there a meaningful commitment to community, to the dignity of mutual respect, to embracing shared responsibility for local needs?

Most significantly, in my view, Americans have become obsessed with immediacy. We want what we want and we want it now. Reason and foresight have been eclipsed by a fixation on material appearances, and yet we are unabashed about entertaining ourselves with violence and degrading behavior.

Even the once humiliating liabilities of personal debt seem to be of no concern. All possibility of generating real wealth is abandoned in exchange for false appearances bought with future income.

Strange as it may be, we have essentially abandoned the future.

The moral bankruptcy and distortions of logic represented by this posture have influenced almost everything in our national life. An undisciplined attitude has led us to the brink of disaster, and our insistence on freedom from institutional and cultural restraints is fraught with contradictions.

For example, our respect for the individual requires that we honor the independent integrity and privacy of each citizen, and yet we have abandoned this principle out of fear for our own safety.

Similarly, we have failed to see that privacy has been sacrificed when we welcome the obscenity and titillation of mass media into our homes. Personal integrity is lost to a fascination with “the raw stuff of life,” in the words of the conservative American philosopher Richard Weaver:

The extremes of passion and suffering are served up to enliven the breakfast table or to lighten the boredom of an evening at home. The area of privacy has been abandoned because the definition of person has been lost; there is no longer a standard by which to judge what belongs to the individual man. Behind the offense lies the repudiation of sentiment in favor of immediacy.

Richard Weaver wrote these words before the advent of television. And he was not the first to make such an observation. A quarter century earlier George Bernard Shaw commented that “an American has no sense of privacy. He does not know what it means. There is no such thing in the country.

Weaver warned Americans of a self-destructive streak that would ultimately lead to a crisis. He pointed out our fascination with specialization and with the parts of things at the expense of understanding and respecting the whole. He argued that an obsession with fragmentary parts without regard for their function necessarily leads to instability.

Such instability is insidious, penetrating all relationships and institutions. In his words, “It is not to be anticipated that rational self-control will flourish in the presence of fixation upon parts.

This is not the fault of government – except to the extent that government, managed by people like ourselves, has joined whole-heartedly in the party. In a democracy it is tragically easy for government policy to degenerate until it serves the worst inclinations of a self-interested electorate.

Consequently we have descended into the financial profligacy of the past fifty years and are now the most indebted nation in history by a wide margin. Ours has been a twisted path, but with a clearly visible end. And, the implicate outcome remains ignored.

If we are to recover our balance, it is essential that we recognize the wrong-headed thinking that got us here.

Values and principle are not in question; only wisdom. What we are challenged to do now is to reconsider the way we think.


Next week: Freedom or paralysis.

Dear readers: I would be grateful for your thoughtful remarks and feedback.

Compassion is hard…

Sunrise 1-x

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it….

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain…. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

–Henri J.M. Nouwen

American Crucible

The extraordinary challenges confronting the American people mark an unequivocal turning point and, indeed, impose an unambiguous test of America’s place in history.

For more than two hundred years the United States has stood before the world as a beacon of hope, a source of creative vibrancy, imagination and ingenuity, and as a singular model of political freedom, social diversity, and economic vitality.

In the crush of crisis it is easy to forget the historic stature of the United States, and the role it has played and will continue to play in the progress of an ever-advancing civilization.

Yet, our confidence in the future is shaken by abandoned responsibility and collapsing institutions. Our economic well-being and social coherence as a nation have been weakened, and the generosity of spirit for which we have long been known appears dimmed.

In observance of Independence Day, and in honor of the many new readers who have joined the blog in recent weeks, I am stepping away from the current topic to revisit the central theme of the forthcoming book.

Blog posts usually appear each Friday, both here and on the Facebook page. You will find a proposed table of contents here, an introduction to the book, and full drafts of several chapters. This post is adapted from Chapter One, “American Crucible.”

Do we possess the vision and resolve to join one another in rebuilding the foundations of the United States based on its’ core values and ultimate meaning? Are we prepared to rise above our differences for the sake of “the American idea?”

I believe this is a time to consider our identity as a people.

My message is brief. It will be short on analytical detail and will avoid blame. There is more than enough blame to go around and we all know about it. Rather, it will focus on the essentials of mind and attitude, of moral character, and of our relationships with one another that will be required to turn things around – to turn despair into courage and failure into honor and self-respect.

The book will acknowledge some of the basic errors of the past that must be avoided if we are to forge a realistic course into the future. We will briefly consider the manner in which Americans have given up control of our lives and made ourselves vulnerable to the present circumstances.

However, we will do so not to fix blame, but for the purpose of understanding the steps to securing a free and stable future.

We all yearn for a less partisan and more civil national discourse. Let us accept that diverse views are needed, however divergent they may be, if we are to correctly identify effective solutions. Practical problem-solving best occurs with input from varied perspectives. And, I must point out that in the present dangerously fragile context, priority must go to ensuring the safety and well-being of our families and communities. This will depend on loyalty, cooperation, and teamwork – despite our differences.

There can be no freedom without trust. And, we cannot begin to address the larger issues in our future without first securing stable local forums in which to engage with civility.

Is this really possible? Yes, but only with great patience and a capacity to envision the end in the beginning.

The United States has gained its vitality from our diversity and the creative engagement found in the clash of differing opinions. Our differences must never be permitted to subvert the unity of purpose that secures the identity of the nation. This immense energy can only be productive if disciplined by civil discourse, steadfast commitment, and a shared vision.

At a time of extraordinary existential threat we are confronted with a stark choice.

Will we return to the founding principles of these United States as the foundation for building a free, ethical, and prosperous future? Will we defend and protect two hundred years of commitment, hard work, and sacrifice by generations of Americans who have given their lives to this unprecedented vision?

Or, will we give way to the emotions of uncompromising partisanship – and allow a great trust to disintegrate?


Next week: A Confluence of Crises

Crisis and Opportunity

I am addressing these words to Americans for two reasons. I believe we have entered a period of severe, successive and interacting crises that promises to be deep, grinding, and long-lasting.

Secondly, I am concerned about the potential consequences of the increasingly bitter antagonism and disunity current among the American people.

Many of you are aware that the present predicament has been developing gradually over time. We have seen the loss of a once vibrant civil society, deterioration of the nation’s economic base, and a profound loss of social coherence and moral responsibility.

We each have a personal decision to make. Do we wish to recover the integrity of the United States as a constitutional republic? Are we prepared to rise above our differences, to engage personally with our neighbors, to instill the American spirit in safe, dependable communities?

These are among the questions that have inspired the forthcoming book. Our circumstances are already extreme. Nothing will be easy.

The United States and the world have arrived at an unprecedented turning point. We face a formidable array of complex crises. The challenges are diverse, profound, and mutually reinforcing. Some will impose themselves suddenly, others gradually, but all will ultimately converge as they impact upon our lives.

What is most extraordinary is the number and variety of crises that are emerging into view at virtually the same time: social and economic, moral and material.

An abbreviated review is offered here to demonstrate this diversity.

1) Increasing social instability characterized by a dramatic loss of civility, and by unrestrained anti-social behaviors that include accelerating incidences of brutality and mass murder.

2) A banking and monetary system that favors the financial elite rather than the American people, and which has become dominated by self-serving individuals who appear incapable of recognizing that their risk-taking behavior threatens the well-being of everyone, including themselves.

3) Massive government indebtedness, which constricts the economy and threatens Americans (and many others) with a dramatic devaluation of our dollar.

4) Ancient and deteriorating infrastructure that we depend on every day: bridges, municipal water and sewage systems, and the electrical grid. These will be almost impossible to upgrade or replace by governments already hobbled by indebtedness and shrinking revenues.

5) An exponentially increasing global population. With this comes rapidly increasing risk of global epidemics, as well as inevitable food shortages caused by falling water tables and a continual loss of arable farmland.

6) The rapid development of advanced technologies without a commensurate advancement of moral maturity or conscious sense of responsibility.

7) Degradation of the natural environmental systems that provide us with clean air and water, the consequence of population pressures and the long-term aggregate build-up of toxic substances derived from motor vehicles, household products, and industrial pollution.

8) A failure of parenting, and the emergence of a generation of youth untethered from reality and having little sense of moral, personal, or social responsibility.

9) Last, but not least, a profound loss of moral compass, balance, and integrity on a societal scale. This dramatic deterioration is overwhelming the values and norms of the past, and it is a crisis that impacts on all others.

There is more.

During the past century we have seen the emergence of integrated and digitized global systems that include transport, communication, and surveillance technologies, and a unified global monetary system. Consequently, no crisis can take place in any context without impacting on the whole.

A profound structural transition is taking place in human affairs that many have yet to recognize or understand.

How can such dire circumstances be called an opportunity?

For Americans the opportunity lies in the disruption of our lives – a disruption so profound that it cannot fail to alter our perspective, our thinking, and our willingness to cooperate with one another for the sake of local safety and security – whatever our politics or religion or the color of our skin.

And, if we can build viable local communities we can also begin the dialog to identify the practical extent of our shared values, and to develop a sense of shared vision and purpose that we can respect.

We must resist being dragged down, demoralized. We cannot react out of fear. We will stand firmly together, rising to the promise of our humanity with honor, dignity, and resourcefulness.

The identity of the nation is at stake.


Next week: A Confluence of Crises

Courage is contagious…

Eagle 5

“Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.”
–Billy Graham

“Decision is a risk rooted in the courage of being free.”
–Paul Tillich

“Either life entails courage, or it ceases to be life.”
–E. M. Forster

Where the Work Begins

Living or working with other people might be the most difficult thing we ever do. Even a marriage can be hard work. And yet, if we wish to lead a meaningful life – or choose to rebuild the foundations of the American Republic – this is our core mission.

A spirited civil society is a central part of our American heritage. More than that, without dependable neighbors there can be no real safety or security. And, without trust nothing is dependable. These are prizes to be fought for and gained through consistent and determined effort.

Where do we start? How shall we navigate the inevitable bumps and bruises of working relationships?

When we become acquainted with someone who is emotionally mature and relatively open-minded it may not be hard to develop an understanding. If, however, we need to work with someone who suffers from anxiety or has wounds from the past, (or is convinced they already know everything), then building a constructive relationship will take time and labor.

This is almost always possible, if we have the patience and courage to persist, and if our circumstances allow us to proceed safely.

There are two basic requirements. The first is to get our thinking straight, to have a positive attitude and reasonable, clearly formed intentions. The second is to gain certain practical interpersonal skills. Both will be addressed in the book.

In any potentially sensitive interpersonal relationship it is wise to look beyond superficial impressions to recognize the free personhood and integrity of the other individual. New acquaintances may not seem attractive at first, or might seem more attractive than they deserve.

Each of us is a complex mystery. We can only come to genuinely know one another if we have the generosity of spirit to inquire and take interest. This can be a rich and meaningful experience.

Stephen Covey has written that “every human has four endowments – self awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom…, the power to choose, to respond, to change.”

If we seek to build trust, and if we believe in freedom, all of these endowments must be recognized. Many of us are unaware of our own endowments, our own potential to grow and mature. And the surest way to learn and grow is in the effort to build functional relationships.

Many people will not share our vision or sense of purpose. They may not understand what we are inviting them to do, and may be distrustful until we prove ourselves. So, we need to communicate clearly, making sure we are understood, and find ways to work together. Such things take time and thoughtfulness.

We cannot wait for others to take the lead. The initiative must be ours. This is how we test our skills and put rubber to the road.

Elbert Hubbard said, “Responsibility is the price of freedom.” And Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.

Understanding comes through relationship, and the best way to build strong relationships is to team up to meet community needs. While spending relaxed time offers the possibility for meaningful conversation, it is in working together to address felt-needs and resolve practical problems that we really come to know one another.

Now, suppose we need to join forces with people who are very different from us. Perhaps our politics are at odds, or someone has religious or philosophical views that we find strange, or we simply see reality very differently. How can we get along – and actually trust another in difficult or dangerous circumstances? We will touch on this briefly next week.

Again, I believe the bottom line is this: In every matter our concern must be to preserve and deepen the level of trust, because we can expect to remain under the pressures of disrupted lives, deteriorating social conditions, and the threat of violence for a long time.

We can do this. We are a resourceful people. And we will get better at it as we make the effort.


Next week: Living With Differences

The Power of Teamwork

As we make our way forward through this long crisis, we can expect an erratic path to the future. The sequence of events will be unpredictable. Progress toward our ultimate goal will be diverted and delayed by repeated shocks and disruptions.

We must shore up our spirits and brace ourselves for frustrations. Sharing vision and purpose with others will steady our course – and our nerves.

Community spirit, and the success of communities in determining shared purpose and strategies for coping, will be critically important. This can only happen when we rise above our differences and come to understand and trust one another as friends, neighbors, and allies.

Readers are quite right to question how I can expect the intense antipathy and incivility current among the American people to allow us to actually sit down and attempt to understand and cooperate with one another.

You may think the idea impossible, even absurd. But, as I have tried to explain, we have no choice. Our failure to do this in good faith could result in the absolute loss of the American Republic and everything it stands for.

I think it interesting that our young people can commit themselves to discipline, teamwork, and decisive action in the armed forces – while the rest of us appear unwilling to exercise even basic civility, much less the generosity and loyalty that have characterized the American tradition.

It is not necessary to compromise our personal views and beliefs. The challenge is to be both self-confident and respectful as we engage with others to resolve local problems. This may require that we adjust our attitudes. Can we come to terms with one another as teammates and compatriots committed to the fundamental integrity of the nation?

No cohesive effort can be mounted, much less succeed, if we cannot get ourselves onto the same page. This is not possible if we cannot listen with understanding and communicate with civility.

The way we handle working relationships and resolve local problems will be the first stage in preparing for the future. A right attitude for dealing with an immediate crisis, as I suggested in an earlier post, will probably be the right attitude for working with one another to build a better future.

There will be confusion at times, and a failure to fully comprehend the nature of problems. Many of us are demoralized or under immense pressure. Those who have the presence of mind to engage in problem-solving will need to step forward to engage and pull people together.

Working with people can be one of the greatest tests in life. To assist readers in approaching the challenges of working with people – including those who are especially difficult to work with – the forthcoming book will offer supportive guidelines for a variety of conditions and circumstances. These will include:

1) Overcoming personal differences to build trusting personal relationships.
2) Facilitation of public meetings.
3) Group decision-making where differences of perspective or opinion are present.
4) Addressing conflict by means of an approach known as conflict transformation.
5) Working in groups to plan and execute projects.

I expect you are wondering what I mean by “conflict transformation”, mentioned in #4. This is a practical approach to conflict developed by John Paul Lederach and others. His book is The Little Book of Conflict Transformation.

Conflict transformation looks beyond resolution of the obvious issues on the surface of a conflict, to recognize and respond to the deeper factors that simmer below the surface – the roots of a conflict. It seeks first to understand and address perceptions and underlying causes; second, to reduce adversarial confrontation; and, third, to address the human needs relating to the conflict and to invite participation in finding constructive solutions.

I will try to give you a brief taste of my own thinking on building trust in personal relationships next week. Related commentary may appear in future blog posts, but to gain access to a range of practical tools and guidance you may purchase the book when it becomes available.


Next week: Building strong working relationships

Note to readers: A table of contents and several chapter drafts from the forthcoming book are posted on the blog site. See especially Chapter One: American Crucible and Chapter Six: The Ground of Freedom.

The foundational principle…

People 10

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

“When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.”

–Stephen R. Covey

Channels made for sharing

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“God has given us two hands – one to receive with and the other to give with. We are not cisterns made for hoarding; we are channels made for sharing.”

–Billy Graham