Life Interrupted – and Reconsidered

The shocking impact of the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted our lives.  We can only wonder at the ultimate consequences.  What does it mean for our families, our friends, ourselves?

As a trigger for another financial crisis, the impact on the future will be great.  An unprecedented level of corporate and government debt prior to the crisis has ensured systemic weakness.  Long-time readers are well-aware of this danger and its implications.

Those with a sense of responsibility and the spirit to help others may be feeling helpless at the present time.  Concern for our families is paramount.  And, the natural urge to reach out, to care for the sick and elderly, to serve the community in our neighborhood or church, is suddenly and severely hampered.

Escalating needs will quickly become obvious, even as compassionate inclinations are confronted by growing personal risk.

To sustain body and spirit we are challenged to think differently, to alter our approach to life both inwardly and outwardly.

Above all, we face the need to stay positive in the face of fear and dislocation.  This will not be possible unless we are determined – however uncertain the future – to take constructive action in our communities.

If we are unable to act physically, we certainly have multiple means of communication.  We must be supportive in every way possible, strengthening positive relationships and discouraging despair.

Morale always depends on action – on being and doing.

Accepting fear is useless.  Losses certainly hurt and can require unwelcome adjustments.  But the greatest damage from getting knocked down is not getting up.

All this is especially important for our local communities, which we will depend on in the coming economic disarray.

Personally, we must count on ourselves to stand firm in the storm, and to look around to see who else is counting on us.  How quickly can we refocus our attention on priorities?  How can we gain confidence in our sense of purpose, dependability, and usefulness?

The corruption and disintegrating order of the present age reveal the necessity for thinking and acting in a manner fit for the future.

We are being tested.  Yes!  Are we willing to consider what we wish to gain from being tested – to learn, to mature emotionally and spiritually, and to become better people?

Let’s think about how we wish to comport ourselves as mature adults and human beings.  Such tests as these show us what we are made of.

For those without a sense of inward spirit in themselves, severe tests can sometimes feel intolerable.  Yet we persevere with great courage, digging deep into our own accumulated strength.  Can we recognize that such perseverance is a function of spirit more than of rational intellect?  Reason is a wonderful tool, but only spirit will carry the day.

For the religiously oriented among us, the challenge will be to resist the false security offered by institutional dogma or silver-tongued preachers.  Will we allow our inward self, our spiritual grounding, to be diverted from a direct relationship with God?  Scriptural guidance is immediately available, and it is quite explicit.

Whoever we are, we will gain steadfast strength by first turning inward to ground ourselves and then outward through action to serve family and community.

We can best learn and grow by opening ourselves to the unexpected benefits of hardship – by allowing the testing to become a path to wisdom, to discipline, and to a deepening perceptual sensitivity.

It is this that provides us with the strength and vision for building the future – both for ourselves and for America.  Nothing of such profound value comes without pain.

The time to confront pain and find our strength is now, and the way to find it is through constructive action.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about April 8.

Note to new readers: Links to a project description, an introduction to the coming book, and several chapters in draft can be found at the top of this page.

Unexpected Wisdom

How has the American identity formed itself during the past 200 years – from amidst an immense diversity of conflicting ideas and beliefs?  Why has the clash of differing opinions led to patriotism and strength?

What is going on?

The idea that unity is strengthened by diversity may seem counter-intuitive at first, yet we have many examples of how this works.

In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki describes compelling evidence that large groups of people possess an extraordinary power to solve problems when their judgment is aggregated.  And he shows that the more diverse the crowd, the more efficient the solutions.

Citing many examples Surowiecki describes the conditions in which democratic decision-making does and does not work.

He tells us of the surprise of scientist Francis Galton when 787 participants in a raffle at a county fair submitted guesses at what the weight of a large ox would be after it had been slaughtered and dressed.

“The analogy to a democracy, in which people of radically different abilities and interests each get one vote, had suggested itself to Galton immediately. ‘The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of an ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes,’ he wrote.”

Galton, who expected to confirm his view that “the average voter” was capable of very little good judgment, borrowed the tickets from the organizers following the competition.

He added up all the contestants’ estimates and calculated the average.

The crowd had guessed that the ox, after it had been slaughtered and dressed, would weigh 1,197 pounds. In fact, it weighed 1,198 pounds.

Another example described by Surowiecki is the story of the 1968 loss of the US Navy submarine Scorpion, which disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean. The Navy had no idea what happened to the vessel, where it was or how fast it had been traveling.

Mr. Surowiecki recounts the story as told by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew in their book Blind Man’s Bluff, about how a naval officer named John Craven assembled a diverse group of people – mathematicians, submarine specialists, and salvage men – provided them with a number of varied scenarios, and asked them to offer their best guesses without benefit of contact with each other.

All they knew was the sub’s last reported location.

The group laid wagers on why the submarine ran into trouble, on its speed as it headed for the ocean floor and the steepness of descent, among other things.

Craven built a composite picture of what happened and calculated the group’s collective estimate of where the submarine was. The location he identified was not a location specifically suggested by any members of the group.

But that is where it was.

The Navy found the wreck 220 yards from where Craven’s group said it would be.

Mr. Surowiecki proceeds to demonstrate the surprising consistency of this outcome in widely varied circumstances. And, he explains how groups work well in some circumstances better than others.

As we all know, there are times when aggregating individual judgments produces a collective decision that is disastrous; a riot, for example, or a stock market bubble.

Interestingly, he writes: “Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.

“An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with.  

“Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms – like market prices, or intelligent voting systems – to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think.

“Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.”

My coming book will offer practical guidance for local communities to utilize diversity to engage in effective problem-solving and decision-making.

Stability in a crisis and the survival of freedom will require this wisdom.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about March 10.

A note to new readers:  A description of this project, an introduction to the coming book, and several chapter drafts can be found at the top of the homepage.

The Forward Edge of History

The vision of America that came to life with the birth of the nation was historic.  That vision, controversial as it then was, has been subverted today by a bitter divisiveness that disallows dialog and obstructs decision-making.

Our efforts to regain the integrity of our national identity and to build a future we can believe in, will call on Americans to navigate through currents of alienation, hostility, and misinformation.

Violence begets violence in a downward spiral, verbal or otherwise. Words can ignite uncontrollable fires.  And, dishonest or self-serving actions can do the same.  Destructiveness can take many forms.

Arguably, the United States has been headed for trouble for decades.  But, in the last quarter century social and economic conditions have reached dysfunctional extremes of miscommunication, irresponsibility, and violence.

When the banking system nearly collapsed in 2008, the United States hovered on the edge of material catastrophe.  Americans discovered that failures of responsibility, foresight, and common sense involved the very people and institutions we depended on.

We were stunned by the foolishness that came to light in places where we are most vulnerable.

It was a startling discovery: A cavalier disregard for the interests of both citizens and nation by institutions we had previously regarded as models of dependability.

In retrospect, however, we can see that the crisis had been a long time coming – that it continues today, that nothing has been fixed, and that it reveals far more than foolishness.

The disarray is surely the consequence of something deeper and more basic than financial incompetence.

National leadership has stained itself.  Confidence was compromised, trust destroyed, first in politics, then among institutions and interests that have associated too closely with politics.

We have seen immoral and deeply hurtful actions committed by religious leaders and clergy, the supposed exemplars of integrity.

Where will it stop?  In addition to the material damage done to our lives, the rampant failure of responsibility appearing at the core of our society is degrading and demoralizing.

There is nothing more destructive than distrust.  Indeed, it strikes at the foundations of civilization.

Times of peril require that we avoid contributing to inflamed passions, however offended we may be.  Hurled accusations and insults make it impossible for others to listen and hear reason.

The trouble with blame is, first, that it tends to be indiscriminate. It blinds us to the complexity of circumstances, and to the plural identities of those who disagree with us – or who may have just made some very bad mistakes.

We often fail to see that we share certain values and commitments with those who anger us.

Secondly, blaming blinds us to looming perils that are the fault of no one.  A fierce storm has come upon us.  We need each other for the sake of our local communities.

A storm of this magnitude will alter everyone’s perspective.  The time is coming when we will need to reassess, to adjust, and to seek safety in collaboration.

We must resist fear and its passions, and learn to work with those around us.  We will build from there.

Some of you have expressed serious doubts that this is possible.

I never said it would be easy; I said we have no choice.

If we are unable to confront crises shoulder-to-shoulder as loyal Americans, freedom will be lost in the chaos of the deepening storm.

This will require patience and learned skills.  We must try to see the end in the beginning – the vision of a renewed society where respectfulness, fairness, and moral responsibility prevail.

Both individual freedom and community coherence depend on this.

It is a purpose that might just be worth our learning to get along, even for the most doubtful among us.

Local communities are the one place where we can be assured of having the freedom and ability to make this happen.

Steadfast determination and the American generosity of spirit are among the virtues that will be called upon again and again in the coming days.

The future will inflict tests upon us whether or not we respond with dignity and compassion – whether or not we take our rightful place at the forward edge of history.

Tom

A note to readers:  Please watch for the next post on or about December 31.  New readers can find a project description, a draft introduction to the coming book, and drafts of several early chapters at the top of the home page.

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