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”.

Common sense…

Farm 4-x

“Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Turning the Corner

Whether our ancestors came to this continent by choice or in slavery, or were forcibly separated from their indigenous American roots, all of us are estranged from the lands and lives of our forbears.

Cut off from the cultural foundations that provided previous generations with the basis for social stability and moral integrity, we refined our values and forged new standards.

For some the escape from oppression or deprivation has taken great determination and willpower.  With a strength rooted in the individualism of the survivor, Americans reconstructed human society on the basis of association, reciprocity, and principle: freedom of thought, economic independence, and a new sense of belonging that often transcended social and religious differences.

Early on our communities formed on the basis of cultural commonalities.  But our naturally inquisitive nature and the inclination to range far and wide across the North American continent took us away from our physical roots and led to a society characterized by mobility, homogeneity, and economies of scale.

First railways, and then a proliferation of highways, industrial enterprises, and shopping malls facilitated unrestrained pursuit of economic productivity and material comfort.  Cheap energy made many things possible.  Big always seemed better, or at least more profitable.

Somehow we lost any sense of proportion or real purpose.  A society once anchored by small businesses and community cohesion soon fell apart, morphing into urban sprawl, broken families, and lost dreams.

Unfortunately, and paradoxically, the resulting loss of social coherence and community has led to diminishing independence and self-sufficiency among ordinary Americans.

Many of us have a haunting awareness of this loss of social integrity.  Others have responded more inchoately and angrily, with less comprehension of the historical context or economic forces that contribute to their sense of unease.

Mostly we have accepted our dependence on centralized corporate power to manage our lives for us.  We are now only dimly aware of the tenuous commercial supply chain stretching thousands of miles across the continent for the benefit of profitable efficiencies.  Do we understand the extraordinary social and economic change we are experiencing?

Most of us have little knowledge of the vast size and immense interlocking complexity of the financial markets.  Even the financial power-brokers appear oblivious to the systemic risk embedded in the complexity they themselves have created.

Cut off from dependable information and unaware of the larger picture, we assume that every day will be like the last.

Do we accept this state of loss?  Do we understand our heritage?

How carefully have we thought through the principles of justice, the respect for diversity, the distinctive balance the founders envisioned?  How confident are we in the ideas and values that give validity to our ideals?

In recent months this blog has explored some of the elements of a national character that is deeply rooted in our history.  We now find ourselves at a turning point where the original ideals that brought us here are partly veiled from memory, and the need to reconsider and clarify the American identity has become clear.

The foundations of the American past remain firm and valid.  Yet, we find ourselves today with little concept of community – that foundation of civil society that we must depend upon for a sure footing.

Community is the single context and condition that offers us control over our destiny.  Yet, we know very little about how to make it work.

This presents us with a formidable task.  Without trustworthy communities, how are we to engage with others, uprooted and disorganized in the wasteland of a broken society?  How will we build dependable relationships, a stable civil order, and security for our children and grandchildren?

I do not address this question to America as a whole, in all its pain and dysfunction.  Rather, I address it to my readers directly, as thinking, caring, self-respecting individuals.

Do we have the vision and patience to work with our neighbors, meeting needs and resolving problems?  Will we rise above our differences, to find security in the diversity of our experience, knowledge, and practical skills?

Are we prepared to rethink our concept of community, and to build together from the ground up?

It won’t be easy.

Tom

In the coming weeks: Community; the home we have the freedom to build.

A note to readers:  This is the first post to be adapted from Chapter Nine: The Individual and Society.

The foundational principle…

Lake 1

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication.  It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

“When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.”

–Stephen R. Covey

The trial of principle…

Wire 3

“Comfort and prosperity have never enriched the world as much as adversity has.”
–Billy Graham

“Adversity is the trial of principle. Without it, a man hardly knows whether he is honest or not.”
–Henry Fielding

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”
–Thomas Paine

The Deeper Crisis

We live in extraordinary times. Having entered a period of successive and interacting crises, we are challenged to pull together as a people, to clarify our purposes for safeguarding the integrity of our nation as a democratic republic, and to determine effective means for doing so.

I have commented here that we face a range of diverse crises, all emerging into view at virtually the same time. We have reviewed a number of them very briefly on this blog, and several at greater depth.

Some, like the continuing financial crisis, have impending implications. Others, like the unrecognized instability of complexity in today’s digitized world, remain hidden, but may well provide the trigger that sends things into freefall.

(See blog posts: February 6, “Why the Bankers are Trapped”; February 13, “Insolvency and Devaluation”; February 20, “A New Kind of Crisis”; and March 13, “The Hidden Dangers of Complexity.”)

I have placed emphasis on the coming financial storm because it hangs over us now, waiting for a trigger.

The too-big-to-fail banks are now bigger than they were before they helped bring down the economy in 2008. The federal debt has risen by 83% since that time. We see an increase of low-paying service sector jobs while our economy continues to lose higher-paying jobs.

The stock market has shot upward with no foundation in economic reality, and has now reached irrational valuations not seen since just before the 1929 panic and the dotcom crash of 2000.

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), which is the central banker to the world’s central banks, announced recently that central bankers will be out of options when the next crisis hits.

Essentially confirming my points in the February blog posts referenced above, the BIS suggests that the major central banks have mismanaged the situation to a large extent because they don’t understand it. Previously “unthinkable risks,” they said, are coming to be “perceived as the new normal.”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also released a report recently, stating that “key fault lines” are growing across the US financial landscape, and that “new pockets of vulnerabilities have emerged.” The largest and most interconnected banks, the IMF concludes, “dominate the system even more than before.”

As imposing as this unfolding drama appears, in my view there is a more fundamental crisis. And, it is clearly visible behind all the others.

I have written here, (as recently as June 26), of the stunning loss of personal integrity – honesty, trustworthiness, responsibility – we have witnessed in recent years. A profound collapse of moral standards has taken place on a broad, societal scale.

This is the deeper crisis, and it may ultimately be responsible for the general deterioration that is dragging civilization to its knees. I say this because trust and responsibility are the basis for the sound functioning of human affairs, and lack of them has led to crippling disorientation and disorder.

Why has this happened to such a broad extent? Certainly we have lost the ethical and intellectual foundations that have contributed to stability in the past. But, why? We are intelligent people. What happened to good judgment? Where is common sense?

Have we walked away from responsibility believing that honesty and fairness limit our freedom? Has the daily bludgeoning of mass media warped our minds and stunted our capacity to think for ourselves?

Whatever the reasons, we are now reaping the whirlwind. For a world where many young people have grown up with little effective parenting, and many of their elders have lost any meaningful grounding in values or virtues, there will be no guidance available in the chaotic upheavals that lie ahead.

Analyzing and explaining the prospective dangers we face is beyond the scope of this blog and book. Rather, I seek to gather Americans around a constructive response that is rooted in our local communities, irrespective of unpredictable events.

Tests that require us to pull ourselves together and rise to our full potential might actually be the only antidote to the toxic cocktail of partisan negativity that is poisoning the American soul.

Stability requires and integrity demands a rational and compassionate response to the downward spiral of social and economic deterioration.

Tom

Next week: Responsibility, personal and practical

American Crucible

The extraordinary challenges confronting the American people mark an unequivocal turning point and, indeed, impose an unambiguous test of America’s place in history.

For more than two hundred years the United States has stood before the world as a beacon of hope, a source of creative vibrancy, imagination and ingenuity, and as a singular model of political freedom, social diversity, and economic vitality.

In the crush of crisis it is easy to forget the historic stature of the United States, and the role it has played and will continue to play in the progress of an ever-advancing civilization.

Yet, our confidence in the future is shaken by abandoned responsibility and collapsing institutions. Our economic well-being and social coherence as a nation have been weakened, and the generosity of spirit for which we have long been known appears dimmed.

In observance of Independence Day, and in honor of the many new readers who have joined the blog in recent weeks, I am stepping away from the current topic to revisit the central theme of the forthcoming book.

Blog posts usually appear each Friday, both here and on the Facebook page. You will find a proposed table of contents here, an introduction to the book, and full drafts of several chapters. This post is adapted from Chapter One, “American Crucible.”

Do we possess the vision and resolve to join one another in rebuilding the foundations of the United States based on its’ core values and ultimate meaning? Are we prepared to rise above our differences for the sake of “the American idea?”

I believe this is a time to consider our identity as a people.

My message is brief. It will be short on analytical detail and will avoid blame. There is more than enough blame to go around and we all know about it. Rather, it will focus on the essentials of mind and attitude, of moral character, and of our relationships with one another that will be required to turn things around – to turn despair into courage and failure into honor and self-respect.

The book will acknowledge some of the basic errors of the past that must be avoided if we are to forge a realistic course into the future. We will briefly consider the manner in which Americans have given up control of our lives and made ourselves vulnerable to the present circumstances.

However, we will do so not to fix blame, but for the purpose of understanding the steps to securing a free and stable future.

We all yearn for a less partisan and more civil national discourse. Let us accept that diverse views are needed, however divergent they may be, if we are to correctly identify effective solutions. Practical problem-solving best occurs with input from varied perspectives. And, I must point out that in the present dangerously fragile context, priority must go to ensuring the safety and well-being of our families and communities. This will depend on loyalty, cooperation, and teamwork – despite our differences.

There can be no freedom without trust. And, we cannot begin to address the larger issues in our future without first securing stable local forums in which to engage with civility.

Is this really possible? Yes, but only with great patience and a capacity to envision the end in the beginning.

The United States has gained its vitality from our diversity and the creative engagement found in the clash of differing opinions. Our differences must never be permitted to subvert the unity of purpose that secures the identity of the nation. This immense energy can only be productive if disciplined by civil discourse, steadfast commitment, and a shared vision.

At a time of extraordinary existential threat we are confronted with a stark choice.

Will we return to the founding principles of these United States as the foundation for building a free, ethical, and prosperous future? Will we defend and protect two hundred years of commitment, hard work, and sacrifice by generations of Americans who have given their lives to this unprecedented vision?

Or, will we give way to the emotions of uncompromising partisanship – and allow a great trust to disintegrate?

Tom

Next week: A Confluence of Crises

Unless we love the truth…

People 3

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that unless we love the truth we cannot know it.”

–Pascal

“Truth exists; only lies are invented.”

–Georges Braque

Crisis and Opportunity

I am addressing these words to Americans for two reasons. I believe we have entered a period of severe, successive and interacting crises that promises to be deep, grinding, and long-lasting.

Secondly, I am concerned about the potential consequences of the increasingly bitter antagonism and disunity current among the American people.

Many of you are aware that the present predicament has been developing gradually over time. We have seen the loss of a once vibrant civil society, deterioration of the nation’s economic base, and a profound loss of social coherence and moral responsibility.

We each have a personal decision to make. Do we wish to recover the integrity of the United States as a constitutional republic? Are we prepared to rise above our differences, to engage personally with our neighbors, to instill the American spirit in safe, dependable communities?

These are among the questions that have inspired the forthcoming book. Our circumstances are already extreme. Nothing will be easy.

The United States and the world have arrived at an unprecedented turning point. We face a formidable array of complex crises. The challenges are diverse, profound, and mutually reinforcing. Some will impose themselves suddenly, others gradually, but all will ultimately converge as they impact upon our lives.

What is most extraordinary is the number and variety of crises that are emerging into view at virtually the same time: social and economic, moral and material.

An abbreviated review is offered here to demonstrate this diversity.

1) Increasing social instability characterized by a dramatic loss of civility, and by unrestrained anti-social behaviors that include accelerating incidences of brutality and mass murder.

2) A banking and monetary system that favors the financial elite rather than the American people, and which has become dominated by self-serving individuals who appear incapable of recognizing that their risk-taking behavior threatens the well-being of everyone, including themselves.

3) Massive government indebtedness, which constricts the economy and threatens Americans (and many others) with a dramatic devaluation of our dollar.

4) Ancient and deteriorating infrastructure that we depend on every day: bridges, municipal water and sewage systems, and the electrical grid. These will be almost impossible to upgrade or replace by governments already hobbled by indebtedness and shrinking revenues.

5) An exponentially increasing global population. With this comes rapidly increasing risk of global epidemics, as well as inevitable food shortages caused by falling water tables and a continual loss of arable farmland.

6) The rapid development of advanced technologies without a commensurate advancement of moral maturity or conscious sense of responsibility.

7) Degradation of the natural environmental systems that provide us with clean air and water, the consequence of population pressures and the long-term aggregate build-up of toxic substances derived from motor vehicles, household products, and industrial pollution.

8) A failure of parenting, and the emergence of a generation of youth untethered from reality and having little sense of moral, personal, or social responsibility.

9) Last, but not least, a profound loss of moral compass, balance, and integrity on a societal scale. This dramatic deterioration is overwhelming the values and norms of the past, and it is a crisis that impacts on all others.

There is more.

During the past century we have seen the emergence of integrated and digitized global systems that include transport, communication, and surveillance technologies, and a unified global monetary system. Consequently, no crisis can take place in any context without impacting on the whole.

A profound structural transition is taking place in human affairs that many have yet to recognize or understand.

How can such dire circumstances be called an opportunity?

For Americans the opportunity lies in the disruption of our lives – a disruption so profound that it cannot fail to alter our perspective, our thinking, and our willingness to cooperate with one another for the sake of local safety and security – whatever our politics or religion or the color of our skin.

And, if we can build viable local communities we can also begin the dialog to identify the practical extent of our shared values, and to develop a sense of shared vision and purpose that we can respect.

We must resist being dragged down, demoralized. We cannot react out of fear. We will stand firmly together, rising to the promise of our humanity with honor, dignity, and resourcefulness.

The identity of the nation is at stake.

Tom

Next week: A Confluence of Crises

Self-reliance, Stability, Renewal

Once the primary force behind a vibrant economy, the American middle class is rapidly losing ground. Morale is weakened. Many are unable to envision a meaningful future or even to afford a new mortgage. Those least fortunate face severe conditions indeed.

America has long represented a beacon of hope to the world. But, now we must rethink our lives, reassert our heritage, and regain a self-confidence that no one can take from us. Hopelessness breeds helplessness, and this does not suit us.

The renewal of the American spirit calls for a renewal of our commitment to responsibility for the well-being of our local communities. It is only here that we have some control. Regardless of what the future holds, it is apparent that we must assert ourselves in building the foundations for a new economic order.

It is time to put our creative imagination to work to figure this out. All of us have skills and the ability to learn from others. Each has undiscovered capacities. Together we can rebuild America, each making the effort to bring others along with us, teaching, serving, sharing knowledge, skills, and energy.

We need to widen our vision, develop new personal skills, create locally-based economies, and begin to rethink the future. When social and economic well-being becomes a mutual necessity we each will have many opportunities to contribute.

I hope we can begin to look at one another with new eyes and a more interested understanding.

What we need from one another most is encouragement and a positive attitude. Let’s get acquainted with our neighbors and grow our network of relationships outward, both from our physical home and from our personal comfort zone.

People we don’t know will warm to us when we show genuine interest in them. The more we demonstrate our interest in them the better they will become at listening to what we have to say. Listening with genuine intent to understand gets results.

Why is this critically important? Because trust and dependability are critically important in times of disunity and danger.

With some thoughtfulness, we will begin to see productive ways to team people up with each other, and to recognize opportunities to share knowledge and deepen trust. We each have the capacity to learn new skills and take on new roles.

I want to make particular reference here to those of limited capacity or little worldly experience.

Some of us have been impatient with those less fortunate, faulting them for presumed laziness or lack of will power. Now, unexpectedly, many of us find ourselves uncomfortably close to poverty, perhaps for the first time and through no fault of our own.

Personal perspective often changes with circumstances.

Sometimes we do not even realize how our own experience can be translated and put to good use in unexpected ways. Practical experience has many forms, and intelligence can be suppressed or veiled by suffering. I assure you that a compassionate investigation into the potential capacity of every individual will yield beautiful gems.

This is far more than a charitable concern. Indeed, those lacking in capacity will often respond to caring attention with the greatest passion, energy, and loyalty.

Work on the new book is progressing well. It will, as you know, encourage Americans to turn to local community as that place where we have the power to assert ourselves productively, to seek safety and security, and to create a forum for clear thinking about the future.

Let’s reach out and test our limits. As I have said, the road to freedom is built with vision, principle, and responsibility. Americans are industrious and resourceful. We can rise to the challenge and free ourselves from negativity and partisan bickering.

Tom

Next week: Where the work begins.

Rebuilding America Without Bigness

When we begin to think strategically about the future, there are a number of complex challenges and baffling questions to be addressed. I offer one here for your consideration.

Bigness has been a hallmark of American culture and has been said to reflect the spirit of the nation. As an expression of raw power, massive engineering projects have fascinated Americans – and the rest of the world – for a long time.

Great ships, long bridges, tall buildings and world-changing inventions have transformed the material world throughout American history. Many of us recall the awe we felt as we watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon – live on television.

In recent decades we have watched huge banks and corporations grow ever larger, swallowing up the smaller businesses we used to favor on Main Street and in nearby towns, and dispersing our jobs to far away places. Eventually corporate America decided they did not need Americans at all. Jobs were moved across the sea to places that had less interest in protecting the safety and comfort of working people.

We were told this would be good for us; that the cost of living would fall. They said we could buy the things we need more cheaply – with the money we no longer have. And so we became accustomed to “big box stores” filled with cheapened goods manufactured somewhere else by some other struggling people.

With the success of big business the wealthy have become ever wealthier, and an ever larger portion of personal wealth has been effectively removed from the consumer economy.

Bigness was supposed to be more efficient; it is not. It was supposed to improve the standard of living for ordinary Americans. It has done the opposite. It has destroyed millions of small and medium-sized businesses and the millions of meaningful jobs they once created. Indeed, we now know that with few exceptions large corporations are net destroyers of jobs.

The American middle class, once the engine of American economic ascendancy, has in many ways ceased to exist, unable to envision a better future or even to afford a new mortgage.

You know whereof I speak. A massive and unresponsive government dominates the economy, consuming the national wealth while producing nothing itself. Gigantic and impersonal corporations, for which honesty and responsibility serve no intrinsic purpose, show little concern for the consumer economy, (on which they ultimately depend), much less the integrity of the nation.

As Americans we should be accustomed to asserting our views, but we have allowed this situation to reach an extreme. Indeed, we have fed it with our own rampant materialism and couch-potato lives. And now it has morphed into a monster.

This is not a problem that can be legislated. How are we to turn it around?

Must we wait for economic catastrophe before we can re-order things? Or will American foresight, ingenuity, and determination forge a new economic course despite the power of bigness? We know how to “think-out-of-the-box.” Can we make an end run around the big boys and take America back?

Whether we face the “clean slate” of collapse, or the confusion and disorder of a long grinding depression, it is apparent that ordinary Americans must assert themselves in building the foundations for a new economic order.

And, the place we are given to do this is in our local communities.

I am not an experienced entrepreneur, but many of my readers are. Many of you are inventive; most are smart. It is time to put our creative imagination to work to figure this out. Survival is not a new concept; neither is creating wealth from scratch. These things are certainly difficult – but they have been accomplished successfully over and over again for centuries.

This time is special. We must unite to rebuild America, each making the effort to bring others along with us, teaching, serving, sharing knowledge, skills, and energy – building a future with a safe place for everyone.

Tom

Next week: Walking away from poverty

Dear readers, your ideas and feedback will be helpful to all of us; please join the conversation.