The Ground of Freedom

The interdependence of freedom and responsibility is elemental.  Knowing this allows us to live our lives with integrity.  It informs us of the contours of justice.  And yet rational thinking alone cannot determine the foundations for justice.

So it is that agreement on a framework for a just and livable environment is the first order of business for every functional community, large or small.

Living and working together as neighbors depends on a shared understanding of justice—an understanding embodied in a consensual moral consciousness.

Secure communities depend on this.  And it is a condition we can only arrive at by means of dialog and consultation.

Making morals and making community are, it has been said, a single mutually dependent process.

We all have ideas about what is right and good, but where do our ideas come from?  Do we make them up from scratch?

The capacity of the mind to conceive and envision personal freedom hints that self-assurance should rightfully be ours.  Yet, a finite world imposes limits on our freedom even as society depends on moral responsibility.

We are aware of the ease with which we can slip into error, over-stepping the bounds of honesty and integrity in little everyday ways.

To protect ourselves from error, both great and small, we need to see with our own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and to think independently with our own minds.

Many are resistant to recognizing the boundaries between justice and injustice, goodness and evil.  But make no mistake: Every human being is endowed with this ability.

Whatever our religious faith or philosophical belief system, the independent investigation of truth is our first responsibility.

Each of us is vulnerable to the error of transgressing the boundaries of freedom and finiteness that safeguard equilibrium in the world.  We each tread a rocky path strewn with obstacles.

My greatest concern, which I hope you might share, is the powerful influence of strong-willed, overconfident individuals who often appear in the midst of crises, and who will want you to follow them.

We must resist the seductiveness of self-appointed “leaders”.  This is my warning to you.

Such people will surely appear, claiming to love liberty when in fact they are its greatest enemies.  Please be prepared to maintain your independence.

The human spirit knows no bounds.  Yet, the conflict between freedom and the boundaries of justice is as harsh as it is inevitable.  This is a fact of life that defines the human condition.

Given the extraordinary human capacity for perception and imagination, we often stretch the limits with painful consequences.

Worse, it can be easy to imagine ourselves possessed of unique wisdom or exceptional qualities.  The past has been punctuated with great delusions.

So it is that we must understand purpose in the finite limits of being, and find responsible means for putting it to work.

Finiteness is a structural characteristic of the universe.  All physical form is defined by limits, as it must be to serve its’ function.

This is the nature of physical reality and the functional ground of human freedom.  The social order in a civilized society serves a similar purpose.  These are givens.

It is the inherent dependability of this truth 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 structural limits, (which include our own moral 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 defeats the limitations imposed by nature and society.

The discipline to leverage our inspiration against the constraints we encounter provides the power to actualize our freedom and transcend the material difficulties in our lives.

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

Discipline and limitation are, indeed, the ground of freedom.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about July 15.

Several additional chapters from the forthcoming book have been added (in draft) at the top of the homepage.

The Journey to Destiny

Whatever our personality, philosophy or religious belief, the individual person has an unavoidable choice to make.  Either we retreat into a defensive posture, or we step forward as mature adults, patiently seeking to engage life with a generous and responsible spirit.

At a time of existential crisis for the United States this choice takes on great importance, not only for ourselves but for the nation and the world.  The American model has served as a beacon of hope for people everywhere.  And, the world is watching.

If we are to protect our families, organize the means for safety and security among our neighbors, and recover the promise of this nation, we must interact with one another constructively.  And with dignity.

In the previous post I emphasized that expressing our views is necessary for a healthy society.   But nothing will subvert our purpose more quickly than a combative attitude that alienates the very people we wish to influence—or need to work with.

As regular readers know, I place great value in local community as the foundation for a dependable, coherent, and prosperous American future.

Are we capable of making this possible?  Americans have little experience with genuine community.  Many of us are barely acquainted with our neighbors.

Why is community a basic element of civil society and a foundation for civilization?

There are several important reasons.

Perhaps the foremost concern at the present time is our need for safety and security in a time of severe multiple crises.  Without neighbors we can depend on and trust, the immediate future appears bleak.

Safety is essential.  But it is not everything.  A community meets needs that are fundamental to human nature.

Human beings possess a deeply felt urge to belong, whether it be to family, a place, or a community where we are valued.  Americans are no different from any others in this regard.

To be fully human we must belong somewhere, to a group, a nation, or a coherent historical stream.

As Americans it is essential that we find our way back to this sense of identity, and to the flow of ideas, relatedness, and continuity which may have become distorted or gone underground, but is not lost.

And, if we care about liberty, the experience must be local.  Communities are the basic unit comprising human societies, the structure in which justice, responsibility, and cultural awareness are grounded.

It is in community that the individual finds equilibrium and belonging; where we are encouraged to express our unique identity, character, and creativity.

So it is that community, when endowed with the full engagement of its’ citizens, becomes the substructure for freedom and security.  No other institution is capable of serving this purpose.

In the absence of community there can be no foundation for the diversity of associations, institutions, and organized functions that form a healthy civil society.

Without such diversity of association Americans have become disengaged, disoriented and set adrift.  And, it is in just such a state that human beings have been most vulnerable to dishonest, despotic and predatory influences.

Needless to say, this is of crucial importance as we confront the social disruptions and pervasive loss of ethical integrity that characterize the 21st century.  To hesitate here is to react as victims rather than to respond as Americans, to choose loss over promise, helplessness over responsibility.

The responsible, free-thinking person will sometimes struggle with the contradictions between freedom and necessity, or may be intimidated by extreme circumstances, but we must never give in to helplessness.

I do not suggest that this is easy to do.  It is not.  What I am saying is that we have no choice.  Either we rise above the challenges of personal limitations or we will join an inexorable slide into chaos.

There will always be difficult people to test our patience.  Choosing to take control of the future will require that we exercise tolerance, perseverance, and self-control.

Achieving an honorable destiny will come one step at a time.

What is imperative is that we each take initiative, that we step forward with a constructive attitude—come what may.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about June 30.

A project description and introduction to the coming book, along with drafts of several chapters, are linked at the top of the homepage.

Responsibility and the Future

The civil unrest we are currently experiencing in the United States has exploded into a multi-layered complexity of ongoing crises.  Like the deterioration of social order in America, the present outburst has deep historic roots.  As new crises continue to proliferate, this blog will remain focused on the challenges of social disruption and interpersonal alienation.

We will seek effective solutions for making safety and problem-solving possible despite our many differences.  And, we will return again and again to fundamentals.

When we hear a contentious and quarrelsome tone in the disputes that dominate today, how do we respond?  Does unproductive hostility frustrate us?  Do we yearn for a more practical attitude toward problem-solving?

The clash of differing opinions is a valuable time-honored American tradition.  But no one responds well to verbal abuse, much less physical violence.

Expressing our views is important.  Indeed, it is necessary for a healthy society.   But nothing will subvert ones’ purpose more quickly than a combative attitude that alienates the very people we wish to influence – or need to work with.

Imagine for a moment that we had the good fortune to live in a community where local safety and practical problem-solving is given relative priority over philosophical differences.

In my most recent post (May 18), I challenged readers to consider how far we are willing to go to create safe, positive and productive conditions in our communities.

Do we have the vision, courage, and fortitude, I asked, to commit ourselves to principled means and to engage responsibly in constructive action?

I am not asking what you think other people are willing to do.  I am asking what YOU will do.

Nothing will change while we wait for other people to accept responsibility for themselves.  Responsibility is personal and self-defining.

The most important things in our future – creating safe communities, ensuring food security, recovering from economic collapse, for example – depend on collaboration.

Most of us understand what responsibility means in our personal lives, whether or not we make it real.  And, most Americans know that freedom cannot exist without responsibility.

But what do I mean by ‘constructive action’?  This might sound unfamiliar, but it is hardly a new idea.

As regular readers know, this concept provides effective means for breaking through log-jams of discord.

Constructive action is geared for problem-solving – allowing a sufficient level of cooperation to get the work done, however limited this might be.

Constructive action is exercised with dignity and respect.  It refuses to hurt or injure – whether by impatience, dishonesty, hatred, or wishing ill of anybody.

Please do not imagine this to be simply a state of harmlessness.  On the contrary, constructive action is the foundation for coherent strength.

It is the first principle upon which all other principles, values, and purposes depend.

It makes problem-solving possible despite inevitable conflict.

The moral integrity of the civil society we wish for will depend on the spirit of respect and trustworthiness that characterizes constructive action.

The two are inseparable as means and ends.

Constructive action is the means.  A future grounded in moral integrity is the end.

Political thinking has always considered means to be either an abstraction of tactics or simply the inherent nature of social and political machinery.  In both cases means are considered only in their service to the goals of political interests.

Here we have a very different understanding of means, replacing end-serving goals with an end-creating purpose.

Such an approach is necessary if we wish to apply traditional American values effectively to rapidly changing circumstances.

This in no way denies the validity of partisan political views.  Instead it provides a rational forum for debate, opening hearts and minds to different ways of thinking.

Influencing others can only happen where there are ears to hear.

And, a free and prosperous future can only be sought by capitalizing on our differences in experience, knowledge, skills, and perspective.

The better our working relationships with friends and neighbors, the greater the opportunity to attract, inspire, and learn.

We can choose to learn the skills and tactics that make collaboration possible – or we can walk away forever from the safety and integrity of a future we can trust.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about June 16.

Links to several additional chapters from the coming book have been added (in draft) at the top of the homepage.

This Crisis, Here and Now

Faced with severe challenges and the haunting presence of fear and uncertainty, we turn to inner personal resources and reserves.  Where do we find strength when a family is in need, when hopes and expectations suddenly vanish?

For many of us the questions that present themselves, perhaps late at night, in some way turn on character, emotional equilibrium, and for the fortunate, on religious grounding.

With the future thrown suddenly into turmoil, how can we respond – as parents, citizens, human beings?  What kind of person are we?  Clearly, courage is called for, but what does that really mean?

We are being tested: What is the best we can be?

Character, values and virtues all emerge more clearly, demonstrated as they always are through actions and behavior.

Words can come easily, but truth makes itself known in action.

I have some suggestions you might wish to reflect upon.  Our world has been shaken and will likely be a different kind of place after the pandemic.  But the world is not ending.

Human beings have often been tested severely.  This is our history, and it has been rough.  Yet, we have never stopped learning, creating, maturing.

And civilization has continued to advance.

Somehow injuries heal, mistakes are corrected, and human failures vanish behind us in the mists of time.  Yes, as individuals we can fail.  But others are always raised up in our place.

So, again, we are here and now:  How do we wish to respond?

What will our needs and priorities be when we are able, once again, to engage directly with our neighbors?  Will living with dependable neighbors seem more important now?

How can we ourselves become resourceful, trustworthy neighbors?  Communities can improve safety and security in many ways.  Are we willing?

What knowledge, skills and tools do our neighbors already possess?  Electrical, plumbing, IT, security?

Communities can cooperate to grow food, of course, even in urban neighborhoods.  And this is the time of year when the soil is turned and gardens are started.

In a world now dominated more than ever by the stresses of an integrated economy, of population growth and complexity, we can expect a future punctuated by unexpected crises.

Long-time readers of this blog know my concern that local community is the only place where we have the ability to address the needs that both dignity and survival require.

We can choose with our neighbors to rise above our differences, to share personal knowledge and skills, to collaborate in problem-solving.  These are the basic building blocks with which the future will be built.

Community is the seat of civilization.

And, so it is that learning the lessons of cooperation, dependability, and trustworthiness will secure a richer, safer future.

Do we wish to live with neighbors we trust?  Do we wish for neighbors who recognize and appreciate our own efforts to demonstrate trustworthiness?

If so, we will have to step forward and make it so.

Living with integrity, in my view, is to be committed to these things – expressed in our relationships with others who seek the same.

It is only in collaboration with others that we can build a future we can respect and believe in.  It cannot be done in isolation.  Every kind of isolation must come to an end.

Will the coronavirus pandemic awake us to the challenging potential of this waiting reward?

Or will it require a series of ever greater crises and even more terrible suffering for Americans to turn the corner?

There is no other way.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about May 6.

Note for new readers: A project description, introduction to the coming book, and several chapters in draft can be found linked at the top of the homepage.

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