The Ground of Freedom

We value our freedom despite the constraints and responsibilities that come with it.  We would like to do as we wish without interference.  And the feeling stays with us because, unlike any other creature, we possess free will.

Free will can make us aware of any imaginable possibility. We can choose to be kind or ugly, constructive or destructive, good or evil.  Whatever we choose to do, we could just as well choose not to do.

Without choice there could be no morality.

We make choices every day.  Some are very important to us—activities and relationships, intentions and goals which will influence or constrain future opportunities.

The choice of career, of a love-mate, and the decisions to have a family, to stand by a friend, or to embrace a religious faith—all of these determine (and limit) future choices.  If we are adult people, we find our choices constrained by our sense of responsibility as members of family, community, and society.

If we wish to strengthen relationships or succeed in an endeavor, we will act with “response-ability”.  Because our “ability to respond” will have consequences.

Without responsibility we remain essentially isolated—denied the sense of belonging that defines our place in the world, measures personal integrity and enriches perspective.

It is for this reason that thinking people recognize the interdependence of freedom and responsibility.  Genuine freedom is simply not possible otherwise.

Understanding this allows us to live with purpose.  It informs us of the contours of justice that give structure to human reality.  It provides the context in which freedom can be sought and actualized.

Family, friendships, community, and society—these provide the context in which personal identity becomes conscious.  Together they form the reality in which freedom can be found and exercised. If we are to know who our friends and neighbors really are—their dignity, their hopes and fears, and the experience that influences them—we need to engage in authentic dialog.  We need to know how to listen for the purpose of understanding.

Ethical standards and respectful behavior concern order and relationships.  Both safety and comfort depend on this.  Civilized life is relational and can only be secured by engaging in meaningful dialog.

Making morals and making community are, it has been said, a single dialectical process.  Living in the world calls us to understanding, commitment and responsibility.

Yes, working with people can be the most challenging thing we do.  But, creating a free society—and a safe, friendly neighborhood—can make it very rewarding.

If we wish for constructive lives, we will surely seek the freedom that is our birthright.  And we will recognize the foundations for freedom in the finite limitations of existence.

We are finite beings living in a finite world.  This is the nature of reality and the ground of freedom.  The social order in a civilized society serves a similar purpose.  These are givens.

Without structural limits, which include our own moral values as well as the civil constraints of an orderly society, we would have no capacity to exercise intelligence and direct our energy, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

For the individual, the ability to exercise discipline overcomes 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 material challenges.

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 February 1.

Finding the Door

The need for safety, and the urgency to secure food for our table have become paramount concerns.  Our many problems are not simple.  We find ourselves facing the onslaught of multiple crises and unprecedented complexity.  Never before has humankind encountered such challenges. 

Our lives depend on a complex global economy, a fragile supply chain, and an international monetary system based solely on confidence.  We watch apprehensively as the world’s population explodes exponentially, even as food production dwindles.  And, hidden in plain sight, the interdependent digital systems which manage and coordinate almost everything we need, can be easily disrupted.

Long-time readers will recall my concerns about the capricious unpredictability of complexity.  This is a new threat we have never before encountered. Already confronted with personal hardship and civil disorder, we must also brace ourselves for the threat of complexity—the shockingly unexpected.  

The hand-holds to stability are loosening even as we reach for them.  As the horizon darkens, where can we find the door to stability?  How will we build a future we can accept and believe in?

My argument that dependable neighbors are essential and that safe, functional communities can actually be created, has usually fallen on deaf ears.  Sadly, this is difficult to imagine in today’s America.  Yet it is something we have had before.  America was built on the foundation of coherent local communities, and we can learn how to do this again.

The wholesale destruction of communities by the industrial revolution, and the subsequent domination of a faceless corporate society, has had major consequences.  The loss has blind-sided Americans, and I believe it to be the primary cause of growing distrust.

Throughout history, local communities have been the place where human beings develop our personal identity and where we learn what it means to belong somewhere.  This is where we build relationships and gain confidence in our ourselves as individuals.

Americans are intelligent and quite capable of thinking rationally.  But for many generations we have been enveloped in mass society—a corporate-dominated reality.  And, mass society has its own impersonal interests which are not our own.

Today true community very rarely exists.  We don’t know what this is.  Political community is often the only community we have, and partisan politics are defined by division and conflict.

Most of us barely know our next-door neighbors.

Few of us live in a neighborhood that provides the safety and organized coherence that communities have provided in the past.  While we may not be aware of everything that has been taken from us, we certainly know the uncertainty, insecurity and alienation that the loss of community has caused. 

Hurtful experiences are common in this uprooted reality, especially among young people. The natural consequences of resentments and alienation are often misconstrued as disrespect or disloyalty or worse.  But blame gets us nowhere.

Any of us might behave just as desperately if we were faced with similar insults and injustices over long periods of time. Let’s think before we draw conclusions.  If we are ever to understand people, we need to ask questions, and to listen with the intention of understanding.

Nothing I am saying requires us to alter our personal values or views.  But a civilized future can only be built with civility, respectfulness, and responsibility.

We learn that people are trustworthy and dependable by allowing ourselves to know them as friends and neighbors. The best way to learn what people are made of—and to actually build trust—is to work with them shoulder-to-shoulder, meeting shared needs and resolving local problems.

This is the door to safety.  Each of us is capable of walking through it on our own, without regard for the confusion or misbehavior of others.

Yes, building safe local communities will be challenging.  But we can learn this skill, just as we have many others.  Practical guidance is available, and I intend to assist.

However dark the future seems, each of us possesses a lamp we have the power to light. Even the smallest lamp will dispel the darkness, which has no existence of its own.

Tom

Note to readers:  You may watch for the next post on or about January 1.  A project description and several sample chapters from the forthcoming book are available in draft at the top of the homepage.

Why Trustworthiness?

Several of the American founders warned us that self-government depends on citizens governing their own behavior.  Among them, Patrick Henry, George Washington and James Madison all emphasized the importance of virtue.  I have observed here that truthfulness is the most important of the virtues because all the others depend upon it.  And trustworthiness is the sister of truthfulness.  Human civilization cannot survive without them.

How can we rebuild a foundation of trustworthiness in America? 

Well, this is after all a personal responsibility.  We cannot control anyone’s behavior but our own.   Like morality, trustworthiness is only possible with free-will.  It is a choice.

Sometimes I wonder how many of us truly understand the necessity for trustworthiness in a world worth living in.

Each of us is in a position to build trustworthiness with our families and in our communities, even if all the rest of the world succumbs to disunity and degradation.  Trust becomes possible through genuine, unpretentious engagement—honest interpersonal relationships. And yet many of us are possessed by the illusion that trusting relationships are impossible with people we disagree with. This is a problem.

Trust grows through the experience of good will, dependability and patient kindness.  It has nothing to do with opinion. We can begin to experience dependability in working relationships.  And when we get to know people through experience, we discover who they really are and put aside our imagination.

Authentic relationships depend on authentic dialogue.  And in the dysfunctional society we live in today true dialogue is rarely tolerated. Conversations between disinterested or self-indulgent individuals are little more than disconnected monologues.

We cannot understand each other when we fail to listen with the intention of understanding.

Americans have always been a contentious lot.  Yet, we enjoy one another while watching professional sports together over beer and pizza. Some of us have experienced the absolute trust required in the military.  Certainly, soldiers do not agree on everything under the sun.  But they do not question the necessity for trust.

The time will come, as society continues to break down, when personal comfort and possibly even survival itself will depend on trustworthy neighbors.

Can we see that the world is coming apart?  There is no longer time for foolishness.  Cooperation is becoming necessary to resolve local problems and meet shared needs. An inability to engage as neighbors and fellow-citizens committed to dependability, will become increasingly dangerous.

In the last post I wrote about the means for decision-making in communities and small groups where substantial differences exist.  A regular reader on the Facebook page commented: “You are right, but given everything that has happened in the past and is happening today, this is a tough elephant pill to swallow.”

I responded to her: “Hi Caroline. Do you think we have a choice? We are facing a major transition. In my view, a small number of determined Americans can form communities among themselves, and new people can be added gradually–if they are ready to adopt a realistic perspective and discipline. I think you know what I mean: Trustworthiness, dependability, a respectful attitude and the acceptance of differences. You need only to find a few to initiate dialog and begin to sow the seeds. This can take place in scattered locations across the country–wherever good will and rationality survive.”

Engaging with the people around us can be challenging.  But we need not convince them of anything politically or philosophically.  We only need to win them over as good neighbors, with kindheartedness and determination.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about November 2.

The Road to Liberty

We often make assumptions about the meaning of liberty.  But have we considered its questions and requirements?  Can we truly embrace meaning without examining its foundation?

I’ve been challenging you to seek true liberty, rather than the benefits we suppose it will provide.  And, I have focused on the role of the virtues in the function of the United States Constitution, a concern argued forcefully by the Founders.

Some people think a concern for the virtues is tiresome or frivolous.  Who are these people?  How do they live?  What do they know?

Do we expect to defend liberty without principles or conditions?

The Founders identified personal virtues required by the Constitution.  They knew the Constitution, which imposed almost no limits on personal freedom, could not function without ethical behavior on the part of citizens.

They said so in writing.

Why?

At a time when the horizon is darkening, when growing disruptions dominate our lives, the virtues take on renewed significance.  They include trustworthiness, dependability, patience, forbearance, cooperation and courage—among others.

And the most important is truthfulness.  Because truthfulness is the foundation for all the rest.

While these are personal principles requiring personal commitment, civilization itself depends on them.

For Americans who care about the future this is a practical matter.  The virtues are the fundamental requirements of a civilized, prosperous and secure order.

But they are more than this.  They are markers that identify human character.  They inform us of the inherent attributes of a persons’ beliefs and intentions, the moral and ethical basis for their actions and reactions.

I suggest that these are firm attributes among those who have chosen to serve their country and their neighbors with selfless intent.

Words are not enough.  Honesty and dependability, patience and good will, are revealed in action—the behavior of trustworthy people.

There is nothing we need now more than trust.

And, yes, there is a bottom line:  The truly trustworthy person knows this about him- or herself!  We are trustworthy when no one is watching; truthful when no one else will know the difference.

We show patience and forbearance when no one else would do so.

The virtues bring our lives into harmony with the way of the world when things are right.  They are consistent with justice.  They are the foundations of order.

Who would imagine that liberty could be built on the foundation of anything else?

It is long past time to stop listening to gossip and easy talk.  We need to turn to our neighbors, whoever they may be, and get down to the real work.

Local communities are the building-blocks of civilization, and the virtues are the means that govern outcomes.  It is time for action.

Nothing will change until each of us takes initiative.

We cannot know the needs of a neighborhood, a community or town, without engaging directly and respectfully with our neighbors.

Each of us is responsible for investigating the truth—or withholding judgment if this is not possible.  We cannot afford to see the world through the eyes of others, or to act on unproven assumptions.

Nothing—no person and no problem—can be understood without asking questions.  Dialog and perseverance pave the road to liberty.

If we are not ready for the real work of living in a civilized society, what are we complaining about?

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about July 4.

Note to new readers: An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available in draft at the top of the homepage:  www.freedomstruth.net.

Freedom’s Foundation

Principles are often debated, (and sometimes thrown about in combat), without consideration for their foundation in reality.  How deeply do we think about principles?  When we choose to embrace a principle or lay claim to values, do we consider the meanings and interpretations with which each is understood by others?  Does this matter?

In the previous post I invited you to think realistically about the essential character of “truth” and the importance of truthfulness.  We all depend on our understanding of what is true or false to get through life.

Everyone thinks what they believe is reasonable and true.  Yet it is often apparent that our assumptions differ from those of others.  While we assume that our perceptions of truth are valid, we are often reminded that we have many differences with one another, sometimes slight, sometimes quite significant.

And we all live by principles, sometimes without even thinking about them.  Is it possible they can be influenced by inaccurate assumptions or untrustworthy influences?

If our perceptions of truth are influenced by tradition, or news sources, or social media—how do we know what ‘our truth’ is really made of? How do we judge the foundations for our beliefs—the knowledge and reasoning that supports certainty?  The human world embraces innumerable personal truths!

So, what does this tell us about the reality of truth?  Is it possible there is actually a single foundational truth—a foundation for what is real?

Surely none of us can lay claim to understanding such a fundamental truth, yet it most assuredly must exist.  The world of existence could not function without such a unity.

One principle that matters to all of us is freedom, a principle that often seems elusive.  Realistically, life’s many obstacles and constraints can be oppressive. Yet, freedom is a deeply valued principle.  And so, we choose to respond to life’s constraints with maturity and self-control.

There are many principles we cherish despite their challenges.  Honesty, civility, and generosity of spirit are among the most essential for living and working with others. These may not be ‘rules’ in the usual sense, but they represent values we cannot do without.  They lead to trust, and a genuine freedom that rises above limitations and hardship.

When the horizon is darkened; when safety and trust are threatened by chaotic and unpredictable conditions, we can always turn to fundamentals—to patience, forbearance, dependability, cooperation, and most of all, to truthfulness.

Some folks think organized cooperation is impossible.  But it will be impossible to ensure safety or meet basic needs if our differences prohibit collaboration.

Yes, there will always be some people who are afflicted by selfishness and arrogance.  But the future depends on the character of true Americans—a people who have risen to their tests for many generations.

Americans are smart, resilient, and creative.  In the difficult years ahead, I expect we will gain a deeper understanding of freedom.  We will respond with a maturity gained through hardship and necessity.

We live in a reality defined by limitation and challenges.

All form has structural limits and all limits provide the means for leverage.  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 we would have no capacity to direct our energy and intelligence, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

Our ability to exercise discipline overcomes the limitations imposed by nature and society.  And the discipline to leverage inspiration against the constraints we encounter in life provides the power to actualize our freedom and transcend the 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.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about June 2.

A note to new readers:  Blog posts are usually adapted from the forthcoming book and appear on both at the main website and on the Facebook page.  To receive emailed alerts click on the Follow button at http://www.freedomstruth.net.

What Is Truth?

Hello my friends, I have some questions for you.  I want to ask what you think about truth and truthfulness.  What is truth?  All of us have our own truths.  We know what we are sure of, and what we are not.  Most of us know why we believe what we believe, but might not be so sure of its source and pedigree.

How do we judge the foundations for our beliefs—the knowledge and reasoning that supports certainty?  Everyone thinks logically.  Everyone thinks what they believe is reasonable and true. 

So, can we see that our various (personal) truths are probably not all the same?

What does this tell us about the reality of truth?  Does it mean there cannot possibly be one single true reality? 

Tell me: What would it be like to live in a world as fragmented as our differing ideas about it are?

I suggest we think for a moment about how the reality we live in actually functions.  How, for example, does the human body work so well despite its astonishing complexity?  What allows all our interrelated parts to work together in unity?

How does the physical world provide precisely what we need to live, breathe and be active?  Why does everything—air, water, light, gravity—all fit together so perfectly?

These are among the interrelated aspects of a reality that make life possible.  They are truths we interact with daily and cannot live without.

They are interrelated functions of a single coherent whole—an indivisible and inviolable truth that tolerates no compromise with opinion.

Why do we have such difficulty accepting the logic of coherent wholeness—the single all-embracing unity that presents itself in the life we are given on this planet?

Well, it seems to me there is one very big difference between human beings and the natural order in which we live:  We possess free-will. The ability to make choices allows us to actualize our thinking, to create, to be constructive and to cooperate.  No other creature can do these things.

We have the conscious ability to engage with one another and with the universe.

However, this freedom also allows us the choose selfishness, to be hurtful and destructive.  And to be mistaken.  Anything we chose to do we could just as well choose not to do.

So, here’s another question:  Why would anyone graced with the miracle of life turn away from the honor of contributing to the safety and well-being of family, community, or nation?

Is this confusion?  Stubborness?  Short-sightedness?

And so I ask: What are our choices when we disagree?  Are anger and hostility our only options?  What courses of action can lead to acceptable solutions?

To phrase the question another way: How can we respond to conflict in a way that is constructive, that listens—that avoids subverting or destroying our very own hopes and wishes?

If we believe in freedom we will need to accept diversity and differences.  This is reality.  And to preserve a free society we need to understand our differences and negotiate our way forward.

As you can see, cooperation is not about sameness.  Constructive action is about rising above our differences to build dependable, trustworthy relationships.

Our values and principles are only effective in this way, and a civilized future depends on it.

We all know this is not easy.  But the rewards are great and the alternative is terrible.

What will it take?

In my view, it will be necessary to align ourselves with fundamental order:  Not the order devised by free-will and the human imagination, but the pre-existing order we are born into on this planet.

You might not be religiously inclined.  Some of you might not even respect the concept of virtue.  But human societies have recognized the necessity for the virtues for thousands of years.

Truthfulness, honesty, trustworthiness, patience, kindness, self-restraint…. Why are these so important?

They are important because they allow us to align ourselves with the pre-existing order—to belong in this world the way we are supposed to be, and to live safe, happy, productive lives.

And the most important is truthfulness.  Because everything else depends upon it.

Everything.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about May 2.

A note to new readers: An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available in draft at the top of the homepage.  To receive emailed alerts, click the Follow button.

The Freedom Within

We are human.  We have been given free-will, the ability to make choices and to act with reasoned judgment.  While our freedom will always be limited by circumstances, our choices are what define our character and identity.  Without freedom of choice there can be no morality.  And the choices we make, whether thoughtful or thoughtless, determine our behavior and demonstrate our integrity.

Self-confidence in our personal integrity is of paramount importance for everyone, and this can be disturbed by life’s many challenges. It is often impossible to avoid the tests life throws at us, but it can be helpful to recognize the potentially positive way such disruptions can lead to personal maturity.

Responding constructively to a crisis can be very difficult.  Crises challenge our personal sense of integrity.  We all want to have confidence in our own integrity.  But what is the basis for personal integrity?

Upon what foundation do we ground our sense of integrity?

I suggest that ones’ feelings of integrity rest upon our understanding of the underlying reality of things, whether or not our perceptions are accurate.

Self-confidence depends on our beliefs about the way things are supposed to be.  When we feel aligned with reality as we understand it—with truth as we know it—we experience a sense of moral soundness.

But this begs a question:  As individual persons whose perceptions of reality differ from one another—sometimes substantially—how can we be sure of moral integrity?

Should we align our thinking with that of other people?  Can we rely on someone else’s assertions about truth?  Or should we investigate truth ourselves—independently?

Do we have the maturity to see with our own eyes and think with our own minds? I hope we will recognize the importance of an independent attitude, as we attempt to keep our balance amidst the uncertainties and challenges of a disrupted world.

We are members of family and community.  As caring people, our choices are influenced by a sense of responsibility to and for others. 

Surely we know that integrity—and freedom—are impossible without responsibility.  We cannot walk away from a crisis or avoid the necessities of material circumstances.

Our personal lives are embedded in a social context.  And we are all suffering from a damaged social order.  So, my question to you concerns our ability to see where things are headed.

Do we recognize that the “American idea”, and the fragile order that generations of Americans have toiled to build, will be impossible to reconstruct if it is torn down?

Constructive change depends on an orderly process:  Respectful dialogue and consultation will allow the investigation of creative ideas and genuine concerns. 

America depends now on cool heads and a concern for authentic liberty.  These are the foundations of integrity. 

With steadfast patience and determination, a damaged civilization can be renegotiated, reconstructed, healed.  But a civilization reduced to disintegration and chaos will not recover.

Those who think they can gain their ends by means of violence have a hard lesson awaiting them.

It was Hayek who said, “the principle that the ends justify the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals.”

Ayn Rand drove the point home emphatically in her own indomitable style: “An attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes.”

Strength of character is not found by going with the crowd.  It is only in meeting tests and difficulties that identity comes into focus.

Freedom depends upon our ability to think clearly and to recognize the true basis for moral integrity.  Especially when the going gets tough.

To be both free and responsible we must be autonomous individuals first, whole and complete in ourselves.  Only then can we actualize our integrity as compassionate citizens in the real world.

Tom

You may look for the next post on or about March 31. 

Beyond Blame

Answering questions about what has gone wrong is never comfortable.  Some truths are not pretty.  And sometimes the rush to find answers leads deeper into a quagmire, and is even less pretty.  We are impatient.  We want quick answers.  And this often means finding someone to blame.

Impatience, anger, and a readiness to accept untested information are never helpful. Truth cannot be fabricated.  It belongs to no one.  Truth can be explored, investigated, questioned by means of honest, unbiased inquiry.  But it is rarely simple, and never found where there is partisan certainty.

Why do we react to problems with preconceived assumptions?  Without investigation we can never know the history, the perceptions and nuanced thinking that went into what appears to be bad judgment. 

If we wish to engage meaningfully, to keep our balance and influence outcomes, surely we need to understand the whole picture.

I suppose you think I’m talking about partisan politics. 

But this concern rears its head throughout our lives—in every kind of relationship and in every arena where differences of perception and perspective persist. Families, businesses, and serious working relationships are all vulnerable to someone who tries to dominate—to act without asking questions, without listening, without respectful dialog.

This is not the only challenge we face today.  We face the complexity of massive structural change, the consequence of historic forces that are now impacting us on every side. A confluence of crises is emerging over the horizon.  Our vulnerability to the internet and a vast digital infrastructure is just one example.

Unprecedented levels of national, state, and corporate debt are hobbling the economy. We face the consequences of an antiquated national grid and municipal water systems, an historic drought accompanied by extreme weather, the loss of sufficient farmland, unforgiving poverty, recurring financial crises, and a fragile monetary system plagued by deteriorating trust.

Needless to say, no one fully understands this complexity—how we came to be here or what the future holds.

Blame is perhaps due for greed, lack of foresight, and many other things.  But, if Americans seek to revitalize our core values and to restore a once vibrant civic spirit, we will need to recognize the reality of structural change which is no one’s fault.

Constructive dialog is the first step toward understanding and wisdom.  And a diversity of experience, knowledge, and skills are a necessity.  Our future will depend on it.

The current difficulties in the United States have a history.  A gradual and longstanding loss of trust has accompanied a deterioration of civic vibrancy and economic resilience. This trend has been observed by polling organizations and commentators for more than half a century.

Distrust has left a trail of destruction and decimated the fabric of community relationships.  It has left Americans without a shared sense of purpose. Reason and foresight have been eclipsed by a fixation on quick answers and immediate gratification.  We have embraced false appearances as though nothing else exists.

The moral bankruptcy and distortions of logic embedded in this posture have influenced almost every aspect of our national life. The loss of a grounding in meaning and authenticity has led to disorientation and extremism.

In this context, an insistence on freedom from institutional and political constraints is inevitably confused and fraught with contradictions. Where is there moral responsibility and responsiveness to local needs?

Without careful investigation of context as the basis for problem-solving, and a genuine respect for negotiated solutions, the stability of the future will be unattainable.

If we are to recover our balance, we will need to get acquainted with one another, to engage meaningfully, and to walk away from the alienation and incivility that brought us here.

Let’s get down to the real work of liberty: forging dependable working relationships and rebuilding local community wherever we find ourselves on the map.

There is no other way to restore trust. It won’t be easy.  But with patience, determination, and a constructive attitude we will learn.

It will never be too late to start anew—to dig deep within ourselves and step forward with dignity and purpose.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about February 28.  I will be posting less often for now; I need to focus on completing the book.

Note to new readers: A project description, introduction to the forthcoming book, and several sample chapters are available in draft–linked at the top of the homepage.

Safety, Self-reliance, Responsibility

There are reasons why safety and self-reliance are interdependent.  And both depend on trustworthy neighbors.  Local communities are where we have the most control and the most to lose.  The neighborhood we live in, whatever it may look like, is where social problems become personal problems, where needs must be met, and where safety is essential.

When the going gets tough, our neighbors will matter to us.  Many Americans are ignoring this reality of civilized life, and they do so at their peril. Today as the world unravels around us, we are confronted with necessity.

No longer can we depend on emergency services or well-stocked stores.  No longer can we wait for someone else to do what needs to be done.

Self-reliance is a personal attitude and commitment.  But it also depends on community.  We need each other. Each of us is called to step forward, to build dependable relationships, to patiently encourage one another in constructive action.

Making things happen will mean listening to our neighbors and learning to cooperate.  This is never easy to do and we are not used to it.  We face a steep learning curve. But we can do it!

Necessity can only be met with initiative and steadfast patience.  With a positive attitude and a readiness to persevere despite the bumps and bruises, we will prevail.

Safety comes with unity of purpose.  It emerges gradually in working relationships that cultivate trust and meet common needs.  Just as we learn by doing, so also do we earn trust—reaching out across differences of tradition, politics, and experience.

My forthcoming book will provide practical guidance to meet these challenges.  This will include the means for creative decision-making in small groups.  Aggregating diverse perspectives, interests and skills will maximize both safety and productivity.

Effective decision-making takes advantage of the knowledge and thinking of a diversity of perspectives and inputs.

If we listen to one another with inquisitive interest, drawing out every possible nuance, decisions will often produce more than anyone expected.

As I have often said, there will be no need to alter our values or views.  Agreement will only be necessary concerning a common purpose or the problem at hand.  In the process, however, we will come to know and better understand one another.

Dependable alliances and respectful collaboration can emerge where we least expect them.

Leadership will be needed of a certain kind, and this involves each of us.  Responsibility for personal initiative falls to every person.  It will be deeds and not words, giving and not taking, that create safety and move us forward.

The most effective leaders will be those who serve with quiet restraint and minimal drama.  At the end of the day, the best leader might not even be noticed—because the community will know that “we did this ourselves”.

Citizens who have experienced trust, who understand moral responsibility and constructive action—and who recognize the very high stakes involved—will build these foundations. 

What is essential is that Americans stand together selflessly, making firm our commitment to such values as will secure the future, and contribute to a free and just nation.

We must refocus our vision with such strength of purpose that partisan politics is powerless to subvert or degrade our intentions or integrity.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about January 31.

A note to readers: An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available in draft at the top of the homepage.  Please take note of Chapter One: American Crucible.

Confronting Change: Security & Well-being

Change has been accelerating for much of our lives, but it is especially so now.  These are not normal times.  The challenges are unsettling, especially when the outcome is uncertain.  It is hard to think clearly when life is in turmoil, and easy to fear for the worst.

We are all human.  We need to feel secure in our lives, and security needs stability.  But is all change bad?  Challenges bring personal growth, greater maturity, and sometimes wisdom.

Can there be a positive dimension to hardship and struggle that make us see with new eyes and reexamine our values and priorities?

Values are tested when we are confronted with change.  This can strengthen our self-confidence.  Clarity about values brings clearness to our lives.

Plural and conflicting values are inevitable in this world.  Human beings have never agreed on values, and even personal values occasionally come into conflict with each other.

But we do not usually think about this.  While it is natural for values to be influenced by events, it is when we hit a real bump in the road that we start paying attention.

Unexpected bumps can be uncomfortable.  But unexpected people can be kind of nice.  Especially if we can get to know them.  And especially if we avoid trying to force them into our own boxes!

Diversity is a source of security.  It contributes constructive ideas, practical skills and creative thinking.  It also exposes us to new ideas and perspectives.

Living in a pluralistic society exposes us to a rich abundance of the initiative and energy conducive to prosperity.  And with the benefits of diversity, we gain the experience of others and inspiration for ourselves.

The American character has been formed by the gifts and rewards of diversity.  Our story has been distinguished by curiosity, loyalty, and hopefulness over the course of more than two centuries.

No one expected Americans to be perfect, but the Founders gave us simplicity in the United States Constitution, a form of governance that assumes the capacity for virtue.

Two concerns that I think pivotal in any consideration of our national identity include an understanding of this expectation of virtue, and, secondly, our mutual respect as citizens who understand the value of diversity.

Personal independence and acceptance of individual differences go hand-in-hand.  In the end, one cannot survive without the other.

Again, I ask the question: Who are we, as Americans?  Who do we want to be, really?

The degradation we are experiencing today is real.  Americans have witnessed a profound deterioration of moral character and social responsibility in recent decades. 

The collapse of social order has complicated origins.  A lack of perceptiveness and foresight among both political leadership and financial professionals has undermined trust and social stability on a broad scale.

Institutions we have depended on are facing moral and financial bankruptcy, try as they might to cover it up.  Systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.

However, we are all responsible—because we are all capable of responding constructively.

We are not prisoners of the past nor slaves to the present.  We are perfectly capable of standing on our own feet and accepting one another as fellow-citizens, even with our faults and blemishes.

Yes, it is true that we are confronted with the consequences of the past.  We have lost our sense of direction and ultimate purpose, and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.

What is to be done?  OK, listen carefully!

Truth is not invented by tearing people down.  The future cannot be built on blame.  It is clear we must overcome the alienation that divides us.

Whatever our disputes and misunderstandings, our fears and uncertainties, the survival and well-being of our families and our neighbors depends on our readiness to work together in response to practical necessity. 

We cannot afford to allow our differences to disrupt our ability to make our communities safe and our necessities secure.  We are all Americans.  We have differences, but divisiveness alone will bring our downfall.

If we wish to meet needs and resolve problems, we will have to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences—to face the complex dangers now imposing on our future.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about January 17.

A note to regular readers:  In the coming weeks we will explore views of our national past through the eyes of economic historian Niall Ferguson, social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, and conservative commentator Richard Weaver. 

Liberty and Me

Our personal individuality is something we take for granted today.  But this was not always so.  Individual freedom was a new and treasured idea in colonial America.  Many of those who came from England and Europe felt they were escaping tyranny.  And the institution of slavery had an imposing presence as well.  Colonial America knew what it did not want.

Concern with individualism, a deep-seated reaction against the autocratic rigidity of Medieval Europe, was dominant on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th century.

An active sense of individuality encourages intellectual and artistic creativity.  It motivates entrepreneurial initiative.  And it led to the immensely productive energy of the American spirit.

It also opens the door to undisciplined free-will, to the potential for unrestrained violence, and the rampant materialism we see today.

Self-centeredness came to be defended as the purpose of life.  Breaking free from society to assert oneself without restraint was venerated as a romantic ideal.   The Lone Ranger became the quintessential American hero.

This begs a question!  Can freedom be idolized and defended without accepting responsibility for what makes it possible?

In other words, can freedom, as an ideal, respect the integrity and well-being of the society that respects and protects freedoms?

Individual liberty has sometimes been associated with egotism and selfishness. But the concept was originally conceived as respect for the validity of the views and experience of the individual within his or her own sphere, and the ideal that each of us should be encouraged to develop our own natural gifts.

By 1776 and the founding of the United States, “enlightenment thinking” had crystallized into the conviction that an ideal future civilization would bring freedom and prosperity to the world through the progress of science and rational governance.

To many the United States of America came to embody that promise.  The practical implications were, however, swept under the carpet. 

The limits to freedom imposed by physical reality and the constraints of a complex society might seem obvious.  But many of our compatriots appear unaware of the practical responsibilities that liberty implies.

This is not a simple problem.  We face limits to our freedom every day.  We care for our families, whatever that requires, and cooperate with the requirements of our employment.

In addition, we commit ourselves willingly to civic responsibilities, athletic teams or dance recitals for our kids, charitable organizations and religious communities, all of which can take up most of our wakeful hours.

And the hard realities of structural change and a multitude of converging crises are suddenly closing in around us.  Everything is changing.

Will we simply flounder about trying to place blame?  Or will we step up to necessity?  This is a truly historic challenge.

Many things can chafe in life, particularly the actions of other people.  Domineering and dysfunctional institutions are aggravating, especially in a time of deteriorating social stability.  Yet, human beings are quite capable of rising above our difficulties to create meaning and purpose in the community we live in.

Americans in the 21st Century face simple questions in complex circumstances:  What do we value?  What is it that humanity gained with the founding of the United States?  How do we wish to take it forward?

Will we step forward to create a coherent future with our neighbors despite our differences and the many hardships we face? Without moral responsibility and respectful dialogue, undisciplined free-will leads to disarray.

Let’s pull ourselves together to correct the misinformation, miscommunication, and useless negativity that subverts good will and our best intentions. Truly, an inquiring mind and respectful attitude are of greater importance today than ever before. 

Patience, trustworthiness, and dependability are the hallmarks of a safe community.  They do not require sameness of religion, politics, or philosophy. Americans do not need to agree on these things in order to collaborate with neighbors on specific projects to address shared goals. 

Communities that persevere together can learn the ways of constructive action—engaging everyone in the efforts to create safety, to resolve neighborhood problems and meet local needs.

I never said it would be easy.

We are adults.  We are capable.  We can do it.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about January 2. 

Note to readers:  Links to an introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters can be found at the top of the homepage.

Freedom and the Sources of Individuality

Personal autonomy is a precious thing.  How can we broaden and enrich this freedom?  Is it simply allowed, or constrained, by the society we live in?  Or does it rather depend on our mental attitude—and what we make of it? What translates independence and autonomy into character and purpose?

This can be a penetrating and thought-provoking question.  And the answer might be influenced by things we sometimes fail to consider—our family, our community, and our cultural heritage.

We like to think of ourselves as self-possessed and in control.  But there can be unrecognized influences at work in ourselves which have their origins in personal experience or cultural roots.

Ignoring this possibility does not make them go away.

I am interested in exploring this question as a white American because that’s what I am, and because of my roots.  The European heritage of white Americans is, for better or worse, the founding heritage of the United States.

And, yes, the question does draw us into complicated territory.  Certainly, the ethnic differences in the United States raise interesting questions.

It is apparent, for example, that indigenous American Indian and African-American cultures are far more community-based than is the dominant white American culture. Could it be they are closer to their historical indigenous roots than are white folk?

And we should remind ourselves that the breakdown of the institutions of family and community—fragmented by modernity—has had profound consequences across every cultural divide.

I want to explore another influence here, however: the cultural history of the European peoples who colonized and founded the United States.

The influence of this extraordinary past remains hidden in almost everything about America, and it colors the experience of every citizen. Understanding where America came from can reveal much about where we now find ourselves.

So, why are white Americans so concerned about freedom, rights, and autonomy?  These ideas do have a history.

Thinking people first began to question the institutional dogmas and restrictiveness of medieval European culture in the 15th century. The emergence of self-conscious individuality gradually freed human initiative and creativity from stifling constraints and overbearing conformity.

The realization of individuality led to growing resistance to the rigid fettering of patriarchal families, religious dogmatism, and the social and economic control of trade guilds. It also led to a lessening of family coherence and the weakening of community roots.  And this isolation from the social foundations of association and identity had consequences.

The shift away from family and community was slow at first.  But it intensified greatly with the industrial revolution and in the formless uniformity of mass society.

Why should this matter to us now? The slow fragmentation of family and community life has dominated American history. 

This is our story.  What shall we make of it? Freedom is not found in a wasteland.  Autonomy is meaningless in a vacuum.

Individuality and identity are grounded in context.  They take shape in childhood and early adulthood. They develop in a supportive environment—and with the diverse associative opportunities that are only available in functional communities.

We are human, intelligent and multi-dimensional.  And we need roots.

The destruction of authentic community by mass society, and the disintegration of family life that inevitably followed, disrupted the natural processes for developing identity and personhood.

This is among the heaviest burdens inflicted by modernity. But nothing forces us to accept it. Creating authentic communities will not be easy, but Americans are fully capable of learning how to do this.

First must come recognition that freedom depends on responsibility.

Second, we must understand that safety and dependability require trust—the gist of constructive working relationships.

“The greatest single lesson to be drawn from the social transformations of the 20th century,” Robert Nisbet wrote, “from the phenomena of individual insecurity… is that the intensity of men’s motivations toward freedom and culture is unalterably connected with the relationships of a social organization that has structural coherence and functional significance.”

“Separate man from the primary contexts of normative association…, and you separate him not only from the basic values of a culture but from the sources of individuality itself.”

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about November 22.

Dear readers:  An introduction and several chapters from the coming book are available in draft at the top of the homepage.  Please note “The Individual and Society”, which addresses the ideas introduced in this post.