Cooperation or Collapse?

And what about our differences?  The hostility and divisiveness that currently separates Americans is unquestionably the most intense since the Civil War.

Our differences are based on many things, among them ethical and religious values, social philosophy, electoral politics, and our understanding of history, as well as economic disparities and personal experiences with hardship.

Many at both extremes have distorted perceptions of the views and intentions of the other, and remain unwilling to seriously investigate actual differences.

These are dangerous times.

The vitality of the American Republic has always been energized by the clash of differing opinions.  The national character is rooted in the fertile engagement of divergent ideas that test and expand a rich national diversity.

Our opinions, values, perceptions all deserve respect; yet we disagree vehemently today on matters of fundamental importance.

In addition to these differences, America also faces a broad range of growing practical problems.  As material crises take hold, will the security of our families and communities be important enough to encourage cooperation and loyal dependability?

Effective problem-solving and meeting life-sustaining needs with our neighbors – many of whom we disagree with – may soon be essential.

Are we prepared to work shoulder-to-shoulder in our local communities for the sake of safety and relative comfort?  Can we be loyal to one another as neighbors – and as Americans?

The survival of the Republic will require virtues that Americans are no longer generally known for: moral responsibility, dependability, steadfast loyalty.

What gives?

Our greatest challenge will be learning to view problems and people – especially people who are different from us – in essentially ethical rather than political terms.

This is not about charity.  Civilization requires a level of civility that goes far beyond kindness and common decency.  If Americans are to turn the corner, it can only be with a responsible and inquiring attitude that is unfamiliar at present.

Genuine communication does not require compromising principles.

Indeed, opportunities for influencing others will proliferate when we work together, addressing urgent common needs.

Times of danger tend to open minds and alter perspective.  We begin to see with new eyes and to recognize the dynamics of cause and effect.

It is neither practical nor civilized to go to war with one another when our common interests depend on our ability to communicate effectively and engage in rational problem-solving.

What is most urgent is not that we agree on religion or politics, but that we seek dependable cooperation in the face of material threats.

Practical tools are needed to make acceptable decisions in small groups.  Skills will be required to ensure food security, to make consultative decisions and manage conflict, to organize projects and start small businesses.

We each can develop needed skills.

Under the present conditions of social disintegration, strident divisiveness, and dysfunctional institutions, I have encouraged Americans to turn aside from partisan politics temporarily to focus attention on the practical needs in our local communities.

I am not opposed to effecting change by traditional means.  As the crisis deepens, however, I suggest we will gain more immediate control over our lives through collaboration and community building.

And, dependable community is the ground of civilization.

Our values, principles, and ideals need a stable forum in which to be communicated, cultivated, and spread.  This will never happen by force.

The present crisis will be long and the challenges extremely difficult. We must prevail for the sake of our children and the future of America.  Failure would be catastrophic.

Ultimately we are confronted by a single simple question: Will we accept the destruction of civilized society, a rending of the fabric of the American Republic, and retreat into a state of siege?

Or, will we have the courage and the will to do the real work?

Tom

A note to readers:  An introduction to this project and several chapter drafts from the forthcoming book are available on this page.  Please watch for the next blog post on or about July 17.

Yes, Americans Do Have Differences

I wrote recently of the value of teamwork in meeting local needs and making our communities safe (January 15).  I argued that faced with oncoming crises we would do well to respond in a constructive spirit – yet prepare for frustrations.

Working with neighbors can make a big difference in security and comfort. Agreement about practical needs and a willingness to focus on common purpose will make it easier to make things work.

This means rising above our differences to connect as allies and collaborators.  But, it will not be necessary to compromise our personal views and beliefs.  It is essential that we maintain our personal dignity and self-respect.

As we take on local problem-solving the challenge is to be both self-confident within ourselves – and respectful of others.

It can certainly be difficult to work with people.  Some difficulties are easier to overcome than others.  We can often make interpersonal connections with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, but sometimes it takes great patience and determination.

Why should we make this effort?

The coming days and years will redefine the meaning of crisis for everyone.  Safety will require that we can depend on our neighbors.  Learning how to listen well and understand one another will become an important part of learning how to survive and prevail in the face of great challenges.

The science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein once commented, “I never learned from a man who agreed with me.”

Coming to understand the personality and perspective of another person can be useful in itself, even if no possibility of agreement exists.

This can be the means for crystallizing our own thinking and beliefs.  And, if we approach it as a learning experience we will have much to gain, including knowledge, skills, and perspective.

Aristotle is believed to have said that “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Well, Aristotle did not attend high school, and neither have some of us.  But, it is our job to figure out what he meant and learn how to do it.

Aggravation aside, we are all capable of respecting the sincerity and intrinsic integrity of every human being, allowing our differences to exist freely in their own space, distinct from the roles of community-member, teammate, or friend.

Suppose we find ourselves dealing with a person who presents us with special challenges – perhaps someone who does not believe effective community is possible, or who values their privacy to an extreme, or is just unreceptive?

It is almost always possible to work with someone who we find difficult if we are determined to find a way.

It is prudent to remember, however, that in such circumstances we cannot allow ourselves be emotionally needy or easily disheartened.  Such an effort calls for backbone as well as a positive attitude and a generous spirit.

The wise do not impose themselves until they obtain a hearing.

If, however, we are able to plant the seeds of community in the fertile soil of the human heart, and water them gently with compassion and kindness, we may not have to wait long before the green shoots spring forth.

Often it is impossible to know why someone remains unresponsive despite our best efforts.  Pain is often hidden there, whether or not it is conscious.  And, caring will always give solace, however silently it is received.

When we make ourselves present in the life of another without expectation or demand, healing can take place even without our knowing – until the dam breaks and the words flow.

It might take days, weeks, or years.  But it will come.

In a little book called “The Miracle of Dialogue” (1963), the Christian theologian Dr. Reuel L. Howe wrote that “every man is a potential adversary, even those whom we love.  Only through dialogue are we saved from this enmity toward one another. Dialogue is to love what blood is to the body…. When dialogue stops, love dies and resentment and hate are born.

Tom

Note to readers: Watch for the next post on or about February 28.

A new chapter (in draft), “Confronted by the Past,” was posted on this page last weekend.  A project description and introduction to the coming book can also be found with the links above.  Please see especially Chapter One: American Crucible.

The Price of Freedom

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

To regain the free and fully engaged civil society of the American past, and renew the strength of America that sustains both vision and spirit, we must find common purpose.  Without dependable communities 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 can we navigate the inevitable bumps and bruises of working relationships in a time of crisis?

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

Rising above our differences is almost always possible, if we have the patience and will to persist.

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

When in any potentially sensitive interpersonal relationship it is wise to look beyond superficial impressions.  We need to recognize the free personhood and integrity of other individuals, regardless of their experience or perceptions.

Relatively new acquaintances may not seem attractive at first, or might actually seem more attractive than they deserve.  We must try patiently to discover who they really are.

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 takes time, but 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 and actualized.

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 personal vision or sense of purpose.  They may not understand what we are inviting them to do, and may be distrustful until we prove ourselves.  We need to communicate clearly, making sure we are understood, and find ways to work together.

We cannot wait for others to take the lead.  The initiative is ours to take.  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.  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 unpleasant.

How can we get along – and actually trust others in difficult or dangerous circumstances? We will touch on this in the next post.

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 and deteriorating social conditions for a long time.

Americans are a resourceful people.  We will get through this and come out on the other side as better people.

Tom

Note to readers:  Please look for the next post on or about February 14.

The introduction and several chapter drafts from the forthcoming book are posted at this page; see above.  Please see especially Chapter One: American Crucible.

The Problem of Trust and the Future of Humanity

Trustworthiness and dependability are usually thought of as admirable aspects of personal character.  But as we witness the continuing deterioration of social order it becomes increasingly clear that these priceless attributes are pillars of civilization.

Fear of crime or violence will cripple any society, but the greatest insecurity comes with the loss of trust between friends or neighbors or fellow workers – those we depend on and thought we understood.

Have we found ourselves unexpectedly questioning whether someone we trusted is actually who we thought they were?  When such questions arise, how can we be sure?  How does one keep body and soul together?  It is hard to recover.

Distrust makes the world precarious.  Uncertainties spread; confidence vanishes.

Things fall apart.

Businesses are particularly vulnerable to loss of trust.  Without dependability in governance and consistency in economic policy businesses are hobbled by unpredictability.  Business owners cannot plan.  And a market economy abhors uncertainty.

This is not the way any of us wish to live our lives.  If constant uncertainty makes things feel out of control, it can get scary.

What can we do as responsible people when we live in a society dominated by distrust and a general lack of personal integrity?

The benefits can be great when we choose to be trustworthy ourselves – in spite of everything.  We can be consciously determined to demonstrate what moral integrity means.  But this is not easy.  If America is to turn the corner it will take time and extraordinary patience.

We will have to keep the necessity of dependability in focus at all times.

Nothing will change unless we establish the effectiveness of trustworthiness to those around us and draw attention to its’ value.

In so doing, it will be important that we not fool ourselves into imagining that we are better than others who are failing to meet our standards.  Moral pride can be obvious, and it will push people away.

How can we assist others to understand and value integrity?  Self-righteousness fails to acknowledge that everyone has the capacity to recognize their mistakes.  So, if we would help America move on to a better future we need to be self-disciplined in our contacts and relationships.  Kindness attracts; arrogance offends.

Moral pride,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, “is revealed in all ‘self-righteous’ judgments in which the other is condemned because he fails to conform to the highly arbitrary standards of the self.  Since the self judges itself by its own standards it finds itself good. It judges others by its own standards and finds them evil when their standards fail to conform to its own.  This is the secret of the relationship between cruelty and self-righteousness.” (The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I, p. 199.)

Readers who profess their belief in the Christian Faith may recall the admonition of St. Paul when he wrote: “For wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things….” (Romans 2:1)

Those of other faiths, or those who do not consider themselves religious, will never-the-less recognize this compelling logic.

Integrity is a personal choice.  We must never assume that others are incapable of cleaning up their act.  It is an intrinsic capacity we are given at birth.

A word of warning before we finish: When we recognize a consistent pattern of dishonesty and deceptiveness, it can become necessary to distance ourselves from it.  Such destructiveness permeates and subverts everything around it.

We must be practical, but also ready, if possible, to care for people who are troubled in this way. The greatest forgiveness is the least deserved.

However, forgiveness and trust are two entirely different things.  Once trust is lost, it can be very difficult to recover.

So it is that the restoration of trust and dependability in all our endeavors must be championed by every American as we enter a new day.

Without trust the future is lost.

Tom

A note to readers:  This blog posts regularly.  The next post is due on or about January 31. However, it will be less predictable than usual as I will be traveling.

You may request emailed alerts by clicking the Follow button on this page.

Responsibility and Trust in America

Community is the seat of civilization. It is in our local communities that we engage with one another face-to-face and work shoulder-to-shoulder.  And, it is in responding to crises and meeting shared needs that we earn respect, learn patience and build trust.

With our neighbors we can overcome disorder in our own little corner of the world.  Trust and responsibility don’t just appear by good fortune.  They are formed in the trials of necessity and hardship.

Like a marriage, a genuine commitment to community forces us to mature as adult people – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.  Perhaps this is why so many avoid full participation.

However, there are other reasons to live responsibly.  Just beyond the boundaries of family, community is that place where the reality of immediate needs must be addressed and resolved.

Americans have avoided personal responsibility for these aspects of civilized life for a long time.  We will continue to do so at our peril.

It was not always thus.  Prior to the American Revolution and for close to 100 years afterward Americans gravitated easily, even impulsively, toward decentralized local governance and an independent frame of mind.  We managed our own affairs in cooperation with our neighbors and expected regional autonomy as a natural condition.

Civil society flourished during America’s first century, a vibrant force that was documented admiringly by Alexis de Tocqueville in his two volume commentary, Democracy in America.  Americans created an immense variety of civic organizations to address every conceivable interest and social need.  Citizens did this on their own initiative, inspired by their sense of belonging and the spirit of the times.  There were few restrictions or constraints.

The need for community in America, both in spirit and as a practical matter, is as important today as it has ever been.  It is only in direct engagement with our neighbors, and in all spheres of problem-solving, that we will learn the skills of living and working productively with one another.

As Americans, we have been here before and we can do it again.

Some argue that the decentralist tradition of the American past represents an ideal to which we should aspire.  And this is, indeed, an attractive vision.  However, I think it should be apparent for all to see that there must be a balance struck between a nation of fully engaged local communities and a competent and trustworthy central government that respects and protects the primacy of local responsibility.

At the present time it is difficult to imagine a limited central government managed by mature adults who are prepared to protect both our freedoms and our security.  But, that is what we need.

Without law there can be no freedom.  And, there can be no freedom without a mature understanding of responsibility.  I believe that a valid vision of limited government for the American future can only come from a view firmly anchored in local communities.

Those who understand trust, moral responsibility, and constructive action – and who recognize the very high stakes involved – will build the foundations for the American renewal at home, with their neighbors.

Building unity within communities is a gradual process.  It depends on each of us to reach out across our differences, to form friendships that develop trust, to be supportive in times of trouble, and to influence the hearts and minds of all who care.

It will take time and patience, creative thinking and new skills, and we will do it because America is too important to lose.  The future of humankind depends on it.

Tom

Dear readers: Watch for the next post on or about November 28.   Please note that a project description and several sample chapters from the forthcoming book are linked on this page.