Finding Our Balance in the Storm

We live in a world of unprecedented complexity.  Add to this a sense of moral responsibility, and life can be imposing!  The conditions we will face in a serious social and economic crisis will create unexpected challenges.  It will be easy to stumble and fall

So, let’s think about how we can respond to extreme conditions with courage and fortitude.  How can we meet adversity in a way that can actually serve as a springboard for constructive action and community-building?

All of us sometimes feel inadequate.  Courage fails us.  It can be difficult to find our footing and focus our energy productively, especially when we are confused or surprised.  And, it can sometimes feel impossible to be supportive of others, many of whom we seem to have little in common with.

Preparing ourselves will be important as we navigate through one of history’s great turning points.  Our ability to function responsibly under difficult circumstances will be challenged again and again.

I believe we have entered a period of upheaval that will be unparalleled in character and global in its dimensions.  I will explain in my forthcoming book why we can expect to experience “a confluence of crises” in the coming years, an extraordinary convergence of inevitable and seemingly unrelated crises.

It is imperative that we meet our tests with dignity, and above all not to give in to fear.  Democracy is by nature unpredictable, and it will be severely tested in the coming years.  Our future will depend on steadfast patience and forbearance if we are to preserve the open discourse and cooperation that liberty requires.

The American Republic is and always was founded on core human values and a positive, constructive attitude.  We cannot stand by and watch our future descend into chaos.

Those who are alive today have been chosen by history to bring America through this critical passage in time.  Preserving the essential qualities of the American Idea will be our great responsibility as we transit the upheavals of a great storm.

We must keep our balance, keep our hearts and minds focused on our ultimate purpose and not allow ourselves to be dragged down by rancor and bitterness.

We will prevail if the means we employ are harmonious with the ends that we seek.

I offer you symbolic imagery below for our place in history – a metaphor for freedom’s truth.  What follows are the final lines of a eulogy I delivered for my father at his memorial service, and a testimony to what I learned from him.  Please think about it:

“He gave me one truly great thing above all else…. And, this he did by teaching me the ways of sailing boats.  He taught me to fly on the wind.  He taught me to sail, to ride high on the blustery gale!

“Without fear we ventured out on the running tide, suspended between liquid and ether, to know the snap of the rigging, the sting of salt spray, and the unyielding rush of a steady keel straining against the wild.  Together we embraced the untamed and raced across the sky.  He was my Dad.”

Throughout life we are subject to the vagaries of a capricious human world, just as we can be subject to the vicissitudes of the wind and sea.  Yet, core principles and steadfast standards remain firmly in place in both worlds if we have the eyes to see.

Understanding the requirements of this truth, we can then spread our wings and learn to fly.

As with a sailing vessel at sea, our identity as human beings can only be realized in action.  It is through action alone that we free ourselves to discover the world we are given, learning as the sailor learns – to engage a fluid and often unpredictable reality with wisdom and flexibility.

Failing this, we will beat ourselves against an implacable and merciless resistance.  An unwillingness to learn will expose us to the storms of life in a rudderless ship and with our rigging in disarray.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about August 25.

A note to new readers:  Blog entries adapted from the forthcoming book are posted on most Fridays here and on the Facebook page.  A project description, an introduction to the book (in draft), and several chapter drafts are available on this page.  Reader engagement on the FB page is substantial.  To receive alerts by email you may click “Follow”.

The Challenge of Inner Freedom

At a time of deepening social disorder and economic disarray, I am concerned about the potential for overreaction – by the power elite, by police agencies and by citizens.  We are experiencing circumstances in which terrible things can happen.

I will share a story with you that illuminates our capacity as human beings to assert our dignity and inner freedom even amid the most terrible circumstances.

Responding to injustices and irrational behavior is difficult.  And yet, facing the world rationally and responsibly can be a personal statement of transcendent freedom.

This is possible regardless of the conditions around us, however difficult they may be.

To be free we must seek to be autonomous individuals first, whole and complete in ourselves, and then to actualize our identity with dignity and perseverance.

We may not like the reality in which we find ourselves.  Indeed, it could become nightmarish.  But, possessing free will necessitates a commitment to be free in oneself and to engage proactively with the circumstances we face.

If there is a primary requirement for attaining the integrity of inner freedom, it is the personal determination to do so with moral responsibility and ethical discipline.

In my view, this choice has never been described more eloquently than by Viktor Frankl in the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, his testimony of four terrible years as a prisoner in Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp.

Because his response to those circumstances is so revealing, I will devote most of this post to his words:

“I may give the impression that the human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings.  (In this case the surroundings being the unique structure of camp life, which forced the prisoner to conform his conduct to a certain set pattern.)  But, what about human liberty?

“Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? …Do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings?  Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

“We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle.

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action.  There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed.  Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

“And there were always choices to make.  Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom….

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.

“Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually.  He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”

As we face our own personal tests, which we hope will not be so daunting as Dr. Frankl’s, how can we find this strength within ourselves?

Here is a freedom reached through personal empowerment, compassion and responsibility, as we respond to the turmoil of a transformative age.

No one can do this for us.  As we turn our attention to the distress and confusion of those around us, we are preparing for both the coming hardship and the new day beyond.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about June 16.

First Steps to Self-Reliance

The struggle for freedom and fairness in governance has a long and turbulent history.  The passion for liberty set citizens against autocratic or totalitarian authority.  Resistance to unrestrained power and the self-serving motivations of governments is a natural response of the human spirit.

It is only relatively recently that the world has generally come to expect that governments should function in the interests of their citizens, and to believe that political leadership should only be elected on a short-term basis.

This raises an interesting question for those of us living in a democratic republic.

If we require that elected officials should identify directly with the people who elected them, it follows that such a nation should not need to be protected from itself.  A democracy would not exercise tyranny over itself, right?

As Americans well know, however, the notion that citizens have no reason to limit their power over themselves only seems reasonable to those who have no experience with popular government.

Fortunately the Founders recognized the danger and designed a decision-making structure that limits the ability of one faction to oppress another.  Neither a large majority nor a powerful minority can form an oppressive regime like those we see elsewhere in the world.

Even so, the Constitution is only a document and a legal structure.  It cannot provide effective governance without the understanding, civility and cooperation of an educated electorate.

After two hundred years of experience we know that “self-government” can be fragile, complicated, and emotionally taxing.

“The will of the people” often turns out to be the will of the most dominant portion of the citizenry, usually the majority, but quite possibly those with overbearing economic and financial firepower.

The Founders took pains to control potential abuses of power.  As I have written in a chapter entitled “Freedom and Order”, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 recognized the importance of limiting such dangers in an uncertain future.

Liberty has come to mean the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we do not impose ourselves on the well-being of others.

This is an attractive ideal, but is not so simple in practice.  It was controversial in 1787 and it is controversial now.

Finding ourselves facing the tensions and complexities of the present turning point, I believe we would do well to step back and reassess the principles with which we can best regain our poise and sense of self as a nation.

Throughout our history the world has recognized a generosity of spirit that is fundamental to the American character.  This is an attitude – a way of thinking and being – and it is important.

To actualize this spirit will require both courage and patience.  The path to self-reliance and personal empowerment begins with problem-solving and cooperation with our neighbors.  And, this will be hard work.

When we tackle our local needs and challenges together we will learn by doing.

Let’s start by doing first things first:

1) To engage as neighbors with a commitment to get past misperceptions, and then to rise above our differences to resolve problems and address local needs.

2) To identify the diversity of knowledge, skills, and experience we have available among our neighbors – to do what needs to be done.  Survival might depend on it.

3) To listen to one another; determine and clarify our share values, and explore the extent to which we can pursue constructive action.  Confronting basic needs together, shoulder-to-shoulder, will prepare the foundations for trust and dependability.

We should not wait.  All these steps will quickly become critical when the going gets tough.  And, the effort to learn the skills of living together will give us a more realistic and coherent vision for the future.

It is within our own souls that we will first build the confidence to confront our challenges with grace and fortitude.  Only then can we reach out with a generous attitude to friend and stranger alike.

Tom

Please watch for the next post on or about May 5:  The resilience of inner freedom.

Illusion Over Liberty?

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

The current difficulties have developed over a long period of time.  The gradual loss of a spirited civic life has left most Americans without a shared sense of purpose or the interwoven fabric of community relationships.

Americans have become obsessed with immediacy.  We want what we want and we want it now.  We seek to be entertained with melodrama and spectacle, or violence and degraded behavior.

We find ourselves dominated by materialism and immersed in a homogenized culture with little conscious identity.

Reason and foresight have been eclipsed by a fixation on material appearances.  Even the once humiliating liabilities personal debt seems to be of no concern.  We live on false appearances bought with future income.

Strange as it may seem, we have essentially abandoned the future. Where is there a purposeful commitment to neighborhood, to responsibility for local needs?

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

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

Similarly, we fail to see that privacy and integrity are sacrificed when we welcome obscenity and titillation into our lives on television, in film and web-based media.

Personal integrity is lost to gossip, backbiting, and fascination with “the raw stuff of life,” in the words of the conservative American philosopher Richard Weaver:

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

Richard Weaver wrote these words in the late 1940s, before television existed.  And he was not the first to make such an observation.  A quarter of a century earlier the renown Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw commented that an American has no sense of privacy.  He does not know what it means.  There is no such thing in the country.”

Weaver warned Americans of a self-destructive streak that would ultimately lead to crisis.

He pointed out our fascination with specialization, with the parts of things at the expense of understanding and respecting the whole.  He argued that an obsession with fragmentary parts without regard for their function necessarily leads to instability.

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

Until we understand how things function as a whole we will have no capacity for good judgment and no control over outcomes.

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

Consequently we have descended into the financial profligacy of recent decades and are now the most indebted nation in history by a wide margin.

Ours has been a twisted path with a clearly visible end.  Yet, the inevitable outcome remains ignored.

If we are to recover our balance, it is essential that we recognize the attitudes and thoughtlessness that got us here.  Will we continue to choose illusion over liberty?  Would we rather be ruined than to think?

It will never be too late to turn the corner – to clear our minds, to straighten up and step forward with purpose.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about April 7: Responsibility with dignity, or apathy and paralysis?

A note to new readers: A project description, an introduction to the forthcoming book, and several chapter drafts are available on this page.

Civil Society and American History

We find ourselves now at a turning point, confronted by the consequences of the past and the anger and confusion of the present.  Yet, this is an opportunity – a time that calls for clarity of purpose, and for coming to terms with the history that brought us here.

It is not political change that I speak of, but a far more profound transition.  We are confronted with questions of principle, of values, of the meaning of moral responsibility.

Such concerns often come into sharper focus amidst disruption and conflict.

Answers do not come easily, but history leaves silent lessons etched in our national experience.

In my view, we have lost a sense of purpose, and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.  This has made us vulnerable both to our own vices and to the predatory interests and manipulative power of institutions that know our weaknesses.

We have indulged ourselves increasingly over time in our attraction to meaningless spectacle and thoughtless voyeurism – a wasteland of sex, violence, greed and materialism.

In his recent book, The Great Degeneration, economic historian Niall Ferguson provides a persuasive view of what has come to pass in the United States.  He considers four areas in which the degeneration of values and loss of social stability have had devastating consequences.

In my own words these are: 1) the loss of personal and social responsibility, 2) the disintegration of the market economy, 3) the role of the rule of law, and 4) the essential qualities of civil society.

Dr. Ferguson reminds us of past strengths, and in particular the vigorous civil and cultural life of nineteenth century America.

“I want to ask,” he writes, “how far it is possible for a truly free nation to flourish in the absence of the kind of vibrant civil society we used to take for granted?  I want to suggest that the opposite of civil society is uncivil society, where even the problem of anti-social behavior becomes a problem for the state.”

He goes on to cite Alexis de Tocqueville from his famous commentary, Democracy in America, published in 1840:

“America is, among the countries of the world, the one where they have taken most advantage of association and where they have applied that powerful mode of action to a greater diversity of objects.

“Independent of the permanent associations created by law under the names of townships, cities and counties, there is a multitude of others that owe their birth and development only to the individual will.

“The inhabitant of the United States learns from birth that he must rely on himself to struggle against the evils and obstacles of life; he has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to its authority only when he cannot do without it….

“In the United States, they associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion.  There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals.”

Dr. Ferguson writes that “Tocqueville saw America’s political associations as an indispensable counterweight to the tyranny of the majority in modern democracy.  But it was the non-political associations that really fascinated him.”

Consider Tocqueville’s description:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite.  Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books…. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of great example, they associate.”

What happened?  Once upon a time Americans succeeded in overcoming the constraints to freedom through their own initiative and a sense of community.

Today inaction has replaced action.  A once vibrant culture of engagement has been replaced by a self-centered attitude and the isolating influences of technology, mass media, and corporate society.

Will we recreate what we once did so well?  Shall we rebuild the American spirit and character to meet the challenges ahead?

Tom

A Note to Readers: A project description and a draft introduction to the book can be found on this page.  Please look for the next post on or about March 10.

Freedom of Thought, Integrity of Values

For most of us any threat to our expression of belief or opinion would be a threat to our personal integrity.  Freedom of thought and expression is a hallmark of liberty and fundamental to a free society.  This post raises questions about how the assumptions we make about beliefs and opinions can impact freedom, both our own and that of others.

Our personal freedom, however, depends on accurate information, including the accuracy of our assumptions about the interests, beliefs, and views of others.

What do our assumptions have to do with freedom? My answer is that our ability to engage effectively, safely, with real people in the real world, both friend and foe, depends on accuracy.

Assumptions are beliefs about facts (or the views of others) that may or may not be true.  My suggestion here is that unexamined assumptions can limit our knowledge of the reality we are dealing with, and thus our ability to respond effectively.  Inaccurate assumptions interfere with the free flow of information, which limits our personal autonomy and independence.

And so I ask you: If we have not investigated and fully understood opposing points of view, how can we engage with and influence others effectively?  How can we question their assumptions?

I do not suggest that agreement is necessary.  That will often be impossible.  But, being mindful of the dangers of untested assumptions can protect us from misunderstandings or worse.

Questions of judgment often involve complex circumstances and depend on information coming from multiple sources.  Sometimes complexity can be aggravating, but if we value the integrity of our beliefs and our role in the world, there is no alternative to pursuing accuracy.  After all, our personal views reflect our identity as decent and intelligent people.

Problems often catch us by surprise as a consequence of assumptions we did not realize we were making.  This can happen socially or politically.  It happens in science.  I have raised a variety of questions in recent blog posts about historical assumptions that I think deserve a closer look.

These included supposed promises that have long been accepted as inevitable by western society and by Americans in particular: The assumption, for example, that rational governance is possible if we simply trust the wisdom of experts, or that nature will eventually submit completely to human control.

Today we face an extraordinary series of interrelated crises that call these and many other assumptions into question.  Political dysfunction, social and economic disarray, and a nearly total lack of civility and cooperation, leave us enmeshed in frustration.

As regular readers know, I have been suggesting that local communities provide the only effective opportunity for Americans to seek local security in the midst of social disorder.

This is a very challenging proposition.  But, I do not believe we have a choice.  The lessons of civility, trustworthiness and cooperative problem-solving may have to be learned by force of necessity.  Our survival might depend on them.

Teaming up with a diverse group of neighbors to meet shared needs will not be easy.  It will require personal courage and initiative.  Understanding does not necessarily lead to agreement, but it lubricates and sustains working relationships.  It is the path to genuine trust.

The greatest challenge for building community in a disintegrating society will not be differences of opinion, but differences in our values.

We each have numerous values, perhaps more than we realize.  Values are not casual ideas or choices; many are deeply rooted in our interests and needs. If we are to live together, certain essential values must be shared; others might challenge our patience, but not our trust.

To find safety in community we will need to seriously examine our assumptions in the clear light of honest dialog.  I believe we will find more agreement than we expect, but we cannot delay. Dependable community will depend on genuine understanding.

We must never abandon our values, but rather control the manner in which we manage them.  Each of us carries a personal perspective that will contribute to the character and wisdom of the whole – as long as we refrain from allowing ego or emotion to overwhelm the context in which we find ourselves.

We must learn how to work with others, to influence one another little by little, and to live with grace and charity.

Tom

Note to regular readers:  Please watch for the next post on or about February 10.

Freedom and Limitation

Questions about the meaning of liberty and freedom have been with us for centuries. Even now, we are confronted by contradictions and constraints.

In the coming months we will ponder the challenges of transcending our limitations – and keeping a positive attitude in difficult circumstances.

As we proceed, I will refer the implications of religious faith to individual judgment. Certainly belief in an all-knowing God imposes constraints on our decisions and behavior.  It can also liberate the heart and mind in entirely transcendent ways.

Here we will focus instead on the spirit of freedom as it can be experienced by thoughtful people of every stripe, religious and non-religious alike, as we engage and prevail over the obstacles and strictures that present themselves in our personal, social, and material lives.

Of particular significance in our present circumstances, our relationship with nature looms large. Many Americans have a great love for the extraordinary beauty of this land.  And, our future depends on it.  This is our home and source of sustenance, yet we sometimes seem to forget our dependence on it.

Two hundred years ago scientists, philosophers, and politicians all expected that nature would ultimately come under human control.  Human beings certainly do have a unique capacity to manipulate nature.  But, as science has begun to understand the complexity of natural systems, it has become clear that the balanced order of nature must be sustained to ensure the survival of life on earth.

Setting aside the controversy surrounding climate change for the moment, the idea that nature has limits when it is sufficiently disrupted seems to make sense.

When I was a child there were two billion people alive on this planet.  Now, having recently reached retirement age, I understand the number is seven billion and growing rapidly.  This has taken place in a single lifetime.  My lifetime.

I cannot see how seven billion human beings, along with a massive agricultural and industrial footprint, can fail to impose a strain on the capacity of nature to provide the clean air and water we all depend on.

I believe this question is worth thinking about.  Yet, any suggestion that absolute freedom has collided with limits in the real world seems to cause a violently negative reaction.

What is this about?

If freedom appears to be threatened by science, this would be no small matter.  And so a disagreement that appeared at first to simply raise questions as to material fact has instead descended into bitter accusations of conspiracy, treason, and dishonor.

Am I wrong to think that this reaction is about more than climate change?  The emotional climate suggests that freedom itself must be under attack.

There are many aspects of our lives that impose on our freedom.  Physical reality is just one.

Today we find ourselves colliding with limitations on many levels, personal, social, economic: the loss of privacy and economic freedom, violence on our streets, aging infrastructure, conflicts over land and water rights, insolvent financial institutions, and massively indebted governments.

Shall I go on?  It gets to be crazy-making, you know?

Emotion coalesces into a rage focused on those who may have effectively driven us off a cliff.  Who is responsible for all this, we ask?  Bankers?  Politicians?  Corporate executives?  Are these not people who are supposed to understand what they are doing?

Whether it is the limits to nature that are in question or a deteriorating social and economic order, clearly the cherished expectations of ultimate human prosperity are no longer assured.

The prospects for peace do not look so great either.

We are confronted by crises that appear to be approaching from every direction.  It is a time for each of us to begin adjusting to new conditions, new questions, and new ways of thinking. We owe it to our children to keep our wits about us.

We are Americans.  We are capable, imaginative, constructive.  Coming to understand freedom in a way that transcends human limitations has become very important.

We each have the capacity to think for ourselves.  We must commit ourselves to the independent investigation of truth, and not allow ourselves to be overly influenced by others.

The future and the responsibility are ours to claim.

Tom

Next post: The Loss of Ultimate Purpose

Note to regular readers: I have been rewriting the draft introduction for the book and would appreciate your feedback.  You can find it on this page.  Please watch for the next post on or about January 27.

A Different Kind of Nation

The United States Constitution holds a unique place in history.  The framers stepped away from the customs and tyrannies of the past to devise a new model for governance envisioned for a free and civilized people.  It has endured for more than two hundred years.

Are we willing to overlook the subsequent missteps and mistakes, the rude and selfish behavior, to consider what is truly of value to us?  Are we prepared to step forward to defend what we wish to preserve?

If we let this inheritance die, what will we have lost?

The record has been rough-hewn, but how could we expect anything like perfection when we have gathered the human race together from across the world into the managed chaos of a democratic republic?

We are blessed with a brilliantly conceived structure for governance that has channeled the energies and creative genius of the world’s people into a dynamic force for capacity-building and prosperity.

As I tried to illustrate in the previous post, the founders made an effort to see the end in the beginning.  We now stand at another profound turning point in history, a moment requiring a visionary maturity from Americans of all colors, stripes, and viewpoints.

I do not suggest the impending election is such a turning point. I speak of something far greater and more profound, a shift in attitudes and thinking that will require at least a generation to comprehend and internalize.

In the coming years we must find our way through a sequence of social and material crises that transcend partisan politics.  These troubles are the consequence of foolishness, mistaken assumptions and a lack of responsibility and foresight over the course of many decades.

Shamelessness and iniquity have walked together on this land.

There are those who think 200 years is a reasonable age for a democratic republic to reach its’ natural demise.  However, the United States of America remains an extraordinary model of spirit and governance, despite the blemishes.

I think it more reasonable to understand 200 years as the age of maturity, shaped by experience and illuminated by the affairs of a disturbed world, when this nation must necessarily come of age.

We have responsibility for a trust grounded in the heritage of the American idea.  Indeed, it is the responsibility to provide a faltering world with the vision and stability to support the next surge forward by the human race.

This is a trust that no other nation has the vision, the strength of will or the generosity of spirit, to embrace.  Brought into focus by the creativity of the American founders, it shines even now from the darkness, a beacon amid dangers and hardship.

Human imperfections remain.  Those who point to the evils and injustices of the past and present are serving a necessary role.  Certainly we must not forget the ignoble or wrongly conceived.  It is not useful, however, to condemn the vision and good will that give character to what the world has admired.

Questions also remain.  Thoughtful citizens will reconsider the requirements that liberty imposes in the way we handle our civil discourse, our disagreements and decision-making.

Surely there can be no freedom for thought, for creativity, for social and economic advancement in the absence of the civility and self-discipline that allows us to engage freely and without fear.

Recognizing the necessity for the social stability upon which all else depends, a practical reality confronts each of us every day.  Have we matured to the degree that we can represent our personal views patiently, listen with understanding, and, when necessary, live with our differences?

The crisis-fueled tensions of the early 21st century leave us wondering.

Ultimately, stability and prosperity depend on our ability to engage in meaningful problem-solving, and to accept our differences within the supporting constraints of shared principles.

If we fail we could lose everything.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about November 11: Standing together for the American idea.

A note to new readers: To receive email alerts when posts are published click the Follow button.

Freedom and Stability

When the first European settlers came to North America and dispersed into the forests and across the open plains, they had only their own initiative, ingenuity, and self-reliance to depend upon.

No one was there to counsel them about the requirements for survival.  Freedom and responsibility were defined by harsh realities.

Intrepid settlers also relied on one another as neighbors, so long as each took responsibility for themselves.  Self-reliance and the acceptance of personal responsibility are sources of self-respect and lead to mutual respect among neighbors.  Whining and complaint don’t fly, however tough the circumstances.

I believe we will soon find ourselves coming full circle to a time when some of the requirements of frontier life may become necessary once again.

The physical circumstances are different and our independence as self-sufficient individuals is generally gone, but the challenges will increasingly resemble those of an earlier time when we were forced to stand on our own feet, depending on inventiveness, cooperation, and reliability.

In the early years of European settlement, American frontier life required little organization other than that prescribed by the traditions of English common law, and common decency.  But, as populations became more concentrated, it was not long before undisciplined enthusiasm and competitiveness roiled civil order.

Thinking people soon found themselves responding to growing contentiousness – and the dangers of majority rule, which threatened to suppress individual initiative and minority liberties.

Democracy was a new idea 200 years ago.  The Constitutional Convention of 1787 struggled with concerns about the growing intensity of divisiveness in the civil order, and recognition that the future Republic would see changes and stresses that were hard to imagine.

Libertarian sentiments were strong among Americans in the 18th century.  There was a natural fear of the social and political oppressiveness colonists had so recently fled from in their European past.  Many had strong feelings about protecting the freedom they experienced in their daily lives.

Despite deep personal sympathies with this viewpoint, the Founders recognized that majority factions had no compunctions against suppressing the interests or rejecting the needs of anyone who differed with them.  Given a perspective inherited from European history it was easy to imagine a violent and tumultuous future.

The Constitution of the United States is the product of this tension and a determination to create a dynamic framework capable of protecting freedoms and yet absorbing the forces of conflict and change that would surely come.

The Constitution is a legal document, not a guide to rational behavior.  It is designed to provide the stability upon which liberty depends, a structure for governance and a set of practical rules.

It does not supply the values and attitudes, or the crucial necessity for cooperation among equals, upon which its’ effectiveness must depend.

The forthcoming book, on which this blog is based, is largely devoted to this challenge.  Before addressing the future, however, let us first place our current challenges in historical context, and consider the foundational principles and visionary institutions Americans already possess.

How do we understand our role in allowing the Constitution to function according to its’ design and purpose?

How do we understand the true meaning of freedom, and what are the practical constraints required by freedom if it is to survive in an orderly, civilized context?

How did the delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 formulate a structure for governance that would preserve a balance between freedom and stability?  How did they endeavor to encourage a role for civic responsibility that it might prevail into a future they could only barely imagine?

Structural stability is written into the formation of the Republic.  The rest depends on us.  Instability begins with a lack of foresight and an inability to compromise.  Solutions will only be found through moral responsibility, emotional restraint, and cooperative problem-solving.

We stand today at an extraordinary turning point.  Let’s not throw away our inheritance and attempt to start over from nothing.

Tom

Next on the Blog!  The United States Constitution depends on mutual respect and a strong sense of moral and social responsibility, a careful balance that requires commitment to citizenship and readiness to compromise.  Please watch for the next post on or about Friday, October 14.

In Response to Violence

Jay Scoffield is a recently retired police detective and regular reader of this blog. He responds here to our earlier discussion of safety and self-defense (blog posts 5-26, 6-3).

In addition to being a patrolman and detective, Jay has served as a field training officer and his Department’s first mental health liaison officer.  He also taught part-time at his local community college for 16 years while a police officer.  The courses he taught included self-defense and domestic violence, among others.  His thinking reflects a constructive attitude and deserves consideration.

Art, Skill, and Intention

I have practiced various means of self-defense throughout my career as a police officer. While I have trained in many, Aikido found me.  I want to share my thinking here about a method of self-defense that I consider particularly effective, both physically and as a means of progress toward a world I can believe in.

I don’t see Aikido as the only answer available to us when those tense moments come. But I do find the philosophy of Aikido compelling. I offer a short summary here that reflects my training and experience.

Having compassion for people is at the heart of what passionate people do. I appreciate the Greek definition for compassion, to care from deep within oneself. For instance, the Bible refers to “the bowels of mercy” using a verb sometimes translated from the Greek as “to be moved with compassion or kindness” (Matthew 14:14, Mark 1:41, Colossians 3:12).

Mercy is an essential ingredient in justice, as is forgiveness.

Evidence exists of what some in behavioral sciences are calling the second brain; a brain that exists, if you will, in our gut. Scholars also suggest that each and every cell in our bodies gathers information concurrently with our brain. Humans can learn to do things very quickly. It’s a good idea to train our brain to check in with our gut, or that area where “the bowels of mercy” are located.

I think many of us have forgotten how to feel deeply, thus the path to being centered is lost. In the art of Aikido, we learn how to center ourselves.

aikido-2Centering is critical during hand-to-hand combat, and it is the centering of the emotional self that is necessary. Emotional centering involves gathering your internal energy with your mind and placing the energy two inches below your navel – the area of the “bowels of mercy.”

I function at my best when centered. Strangely, this helps one to function better when force is used. And centering can be helpful in situations that require force or diffusing.  If I am fully present and centered myself, I can center someone by my mere presence. Centering someone can be as simple as a touch to the shoulder or an empathic ear. Sometimes we may have to reach into our tool bag for other things.

When a police officer uses force the goal ought to be to get a person re-centered. This requires the officer to be centered before and after the use of force. After the use of force, the officer must lead the person to his/her path of re-centering. This can only be done with love and compassion.

Sadly, some folks will never be centered. Deadly force may be necessary to protect your life or the life of another. Could this be the penultimate experience for police work? I don’t think so. I think showing compassion and love is the ultimate experience.

This model can extend to extremists as well. We have dealt with militant forces before. Will love or compassion overcome these things? Sometimes I don’t think so. But at the end of the day, I truly believe humanity has the upper hand – a humanity based on love.

Jay Scoffield

Dear readers: The next post, “Freedom and Stability”, will initiate a series on the creation of the United States Constitution in 1787 as a visionary and pioneering structure for a newly emerging democratic republic.  Please look for it on or about September 30.

American Meaning, American Challenge

Americans have placed great value on both national unity and our characteristic diversity.  We are a contentious lot, yet we are capable of showing fierce allegiance to one another.

In the book, The Wisdom of Crowds, introduced in my previous post, James Surowiecki offers convincing evidence that good judgment can be found in large groups, and challenges our assumptions about the wisdom of democratic decision-making.  He describes startling results when the independent thinking of unrelated strangers is aggregated.

Importantly, Mr. Surowiecki emphasizes the necessity for both independent thinking and diversity of viewpoints.

But, what about small groups – and communities?

I would suggest that wisdom can also be found, intentionally and intelligently, when we are working face-to-face and committed to common interests.

A decision-making process that culminates in unified common purpose is a learned skill.  Effective solutions depend on a group’s ability to generate ideas that go beyond consensus.

This is only possible when we can rise above our differences to leverage our diversity of knowledge, experience, and problem-solving skills.

Unity is not sameness.  Unity can only come into being with the embrace of differences.  Living with diversity presents us with the necessity for learning how to engage with one another in practical ways.  We can work together easily when we learn and accept certain common sense principles based on mutual respect.

In Chapter One, American Crucible (www.freedomstruth.net), I quoted Peggy Noonan’s heartfelt call to the American people in her little book, Patriotic Grace, What It Is and Why We Need It Now.  In it she urges us to rise above our differences, however significant they may be, to reaffirm “what it is to be an American.”

Rarely has there been a time in the past of this extraordinary country when it has been more important to reaffirm what it is to be an American.

Peggy Noonan writes:

“Politics is a great fight and must be a fight; that is its purpose. We are a great democratic republic, and we struggle with great questions. One group believes A must be law, the other Z. Each side must battle it through, and the answer will not always be in the middle.  The answer is not always M.

“But we can approach things in a new way, see in a new way, speak in a new way.  We can fight honorably and in good faith, while—and this is the hard one—both summoning and assuming good faith on the other side.

“To me it is not quite a matter of ‘rising above partisanship,’ though that can be a very good thing.  It’s more a matter of remembering our responsibilities and reaffirming what it is to be an American.

“…And so I came to think this: What we need most right now, at this moment, is a kind of patriotic grace—a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we are in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative.  That admits affection and respect.  That encourages them.  That acknowledges the small things that divide us are not worthy of the moment; that agrees that the things that can be done to ease the stresses we feel as a nation should be encouraged, while those that encourage our cohesion as a nation should be supported.

“I’ve come to think that this really is our Normandy Beach, …the key area in which we have to prevail if the whole enterprise is to succeed.  The challenge we must rise to.”

Some readers will recoil at the suggestion that “small things… divide us,” feeling that very substantial things divide us.  I am quite sure that Peggy Noonan would not want to minimize the significance of our concerns.

However, she has a point.  We can acknowledge the things that divide us, address them in a respectful manner that allows practical debate, and unite to strengthen the nation to protect a civil order that allows us to preserve or recover the freedoms we cherish.

Or, we can let it all come to naught.

I never said it would be easy.  I have said that if we wish to recover the integrity of the nation we honor and respect – we have no choice.

Tom

A note to readers: The next blog post, appearing on or about September 16, will be a guest post by a recently retired police officer (and regular reader) on the importance of compassion in law enforcement.

Knowing Our Strength

The first step is ours to take.  We can address one another with dignity and join with our neighbors to resolve problems and address local needs.  Or, we can accept a world of hostility, disorder, and ultimate collapse as our children’s inheritance – and let the vision and the treasure of the American idea slip away.

The road to security is built with civility and paved with trust.  To make it so will be difficult.  It is, however, the only alternative to disaster.

The argument that the future can only be built on the foundation of dependable communities is as old as history.  It follows from the rational perception that conflict is a condition in human relationships and can only be understood and transcended in and through human relationships.

It is in the struggle with interpersonal relationships that direct and honest communication can take place.  The means for making this fractious process effective in the context of American history is the subject of this blog and forthcoming book.

Some may say that it is too late.  I say that Americans are courageous, resourceful, resilient.  The United States was conceived in controversy, and the pragmatic vision of the Founders came with recognition that wisdom and strength are found in diversity.

Indeed, it will be argued here that diversity is the foundation for strength, and that the United States Constitution is a visionary assertion of this belief.  The Founders gave us structure.  It is our responsibility to make it work.

Our answer to crisis will determine the shape of our future.  We find ourselves confronted today by one of the great tests of history, a challenge to the intent embodied in the Constitution and the coherence of the American vision that has been gradually maturing for more than two hundred years.

Perhaps we have lost our way for periods of time, stumbled, gotten sloppy.  But now it is time to pull together.  It is argued here that this must begin in our local communities – the historic home to pure democracy and the seat of civilization.

In a free society stability cannot be imposed from above. The kind of strength we seek is grounded in trust and the dependability of personal relationships.

I am not writing about a “recovery” from crisis in the normal sense.  Rather, I submit that we stand at the threshold of an unprecedented turning point – a dangerous crossroads, yet one that offers us a unique window of opportunity to affirm and uphold our exceptional and multifaceted identity as a nation.

In navigating through an extraordinary confluence of sequential crises we will be forced to renew our values, think on our feet, and make both pragmatic and ethical adjustments.  A creative process is now underway that would not be possible otherwise.

An assessment of shared values is in order, and reconsideration of the generosity of spirit that once made America so attractive to the world.

In September we will consider the foresight of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that led to the system of protections, checks and balances that make the American structure of governance what it is.  First, however, we will examine the reasons why diversity has given America a dynamic strength – not as a nice idea, but as a pragmatic imperative.

If American communities are to emerge into a vibrant matrix of local and regional networks, they will depend on citizens with diverse skills and varied perspectives who are capable of teamwork and practical problem-solving.

Resistance to diversity often involves our discomfort with those we perceive as “outsiders”, people who look or think differently than we do, or who come from unfamiliar cultural backgrounds.  Yet, in crises, many differences will allow critical problem-solving that we can ill afford to do without.

It is important to feel confidence in our own ideas and values.  Yes, but why should we be afraid of different ways of thinking?

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

The opportunity to explore the world through the eyes of others different from ourselves is a blessing and a gift.  And, in the event of social and economic collapse – it may be the key to survival.

Tom

Please watch for the next post on or about August 19:  The unexpected wisdom in diversity – how it happens and what makes it work.