The Problem of Trust and the Future of Humanity

Trustworthiness and dependability are usually thought of as admirable aspects of personal character.  But as we witness the continuing deterioration of social order it becomes increasingly clear that these priceless attributes are pillars of civilization.

Fear of crime or violence will cripple any society, but the greatest insecurity comes with the loss of trust between friends or neighbors or fellow workers – those we depend on and thought we understood.

Have we found ourselves unexpectedly questioning whether someone we trusted is actually who we thought they were?  When such questions arise, how can we be sure?  How does one keep body and soul together?  It is hard to recover.

Distrust makes the world precarious.  Uncertainties spread; confidence vanishes.

Things fall apart.

Businesses are particularly vulnerable to loss of trust.  Without dependability in governance and consistency in economic policy businesses are hobbled by unpredictability.  Business owners cannot plan.  And a market economy abhors uncertainty.

This is not the way any of us wish to live our lives.  If constant uncertainty makes things feel out of control, it can get scary.

What can we do as responsible people when we live in a society dominated by distrust and a general lack of personal integrity?

The benefits can be great when we choose to be trustworthy ourselves – in spite of everything.  We can be consciously determined to demonstrate what moral integrity means.  But this is not easy.  If America is to turn the corner it will take time and extraordinary patience.

We will have to keep the necessity of dependability in focus at all times.

Nothing will change unless we establish the effectiveness of trustworthiness to those around us and draw attention to its’ value.

In so doing, it will be important that we not fool ourselves into imagining that we are better than others who are failing to meet our standards.  Moral pride can be obvious, and it will push people away.

How can we assist others to understand and value integrity?  Self-righteousness fails to acknowledge that everyone has the capacity to recognize their mistakes.  So, if we would help America move on to a better future we need to be self-disciplined in our contacts and relationships.  Kindness attracts; arrogance offends.

Moral pride,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, “is revealed in all ‘self-righteous’ judgments in which the other is condemned because he fails to conform to the highly arbitrary standards of the self.  Since the self judges itself by its own standards it finds itself good. It judges others by its own standards and finds them evil when their standards fail to conform to its own.  This is the secret of the relationship between cruelty and self-righteousness.” (The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I, p. 199.)

Readers who profess their belief in the Christian Faith may recall the admonition of St. Paul when he wrote: “For wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things….” (Romans 2:1)

Those of other faiths, or those who do not consider themselves religious, will never-the-less recognize this compelling logic.

Integrity is a personal choice.  We must never assume that others are incapable of cleaning up their act.  It is an intrinsic capacity we are given at birth.

A word of warning before we finish: When we recognize a consistent pattern of dishonesty and deceptiveness, it can become necessary to distance ourselves from it.  Such destructiveness permeates and subverts everything around it.

We must be practical, but also ready, if possible, to care for people who are troubled in this way. The greatest forgiveness is the least deserved.

However, forgiveness and trust are two entirely different things.  Once trust is lost, it can be very difficult to recover.

So it is that the restoration of trust and dependability in all our endeavors must be championed by every American as we enter a new day.

Without trust the future is lost.

Tom

A note to readers:  This blog posts regularly.  The next post is due on or about January 31. However, it will be less predictable than usual as I will be traveling.

You may request emailed alerts by clicking the Follow button on this page.

The Promise and Reward in Teamwork

Readers are quite right to question how I can expect the intense hostilities and incivility current among the American people to allow any dialog or cooperation at all.

I have never said it would be easy.  It will be extremely difficult.  But I believe we have no choice.  Our failure saps our spirit, undermines our strength and impedes governance.  It could actually lead to the loss of the American Republic and everything it stands for.

I think it interesting that our young people can commit themselves to discipline, teamwork, and decisive action in the armed forces – while the rest of us appear unwilling to exercise even basic civility, much less the loyalty and generosity that have characterized the American tradition.

Faced with an oncoming series of major crises, it will be necessary to renew our spirits and brace ourselves for frustrations.  Working with our neighbors to resolve local problems will bring us together.  Collaborating to meet shared needs will steady our course.

The success of communities in developing shared purpose and strategies for coping, will be critically important.  This can only happen when we rise above our differences and begin to understand and trust one another as friends, neighbors, and allies.

It is not necessary to compromise our personal views and beliefs.  The challenge is to be both self-confident within ourselves and respectful of others as we engage in local problem-solving.

This might require that we adjust our attitudes.  Can we come to terms with one another as teammates and compatriots committed to the fundamental integrity of the nation?

No cohesive effort can be mounted, much less succeed, if we cannot get ourselves onto the same page.  This will not be possible if we cannot communicate with civility and listen with understanding.

The way we handle working relationships and resolve local problem-solving will be the first stage in preparing for the future.  A right attitude for dealing with an immediate crisis, as I suggested in an earlier post, will probably be the right attitude for working with one another to build a better future.

There will inevitably be confusion at times, and difficulties comprehending problems.  The American people are under immense pressure.  Many of us are already demoralized.

Those who have the presence of mind to engage in problem-solving will need to step forward and pull their neighbors together.

Working with people can be one of our greatest tests.  This is a fundamental aspect of the life we have been given in this world.

I will continue to offer practical perspectives and tools for building trust and dependability when working with people in our communities, including those who are especially difficult to work with.

Assistance will be available in my forthcoming book, and more detailed guidance will follow in a handbook for communities.

A variety of topics will include:  1) Rising above personal differences to build dependable relationships; 2) local decision-making in small groups; 3) planning and managing community gardens and other local projects; and, 4) responding to conflict with an approach called conflict transformation.

You might wonder what I mean by “conflict transformation”.

This is a practical approach to serious conflict, which is described most clearly by John Paul Lederach in “The Little Book of Conflict Transformation”.  The book is inexpensive and available from major booksellers.

Conflict transformation looks beyond immediate surface issues to recognize and respond to the personal or group experiences that led to the conflict.  It seeks first to reach a shared understanding of perceptions and underlying causes, and then to address the actual human needs relating to the conflict.  Finally, participants are invited to join in seeking satisfying solutions.

When the going gets tough, we would do well to remember that user-friendly tools are available for group collaboration and problem-solving, online and from booksellers.

No one can do this for us.  Each of us can learn – if we have the will to stand up, take responsibility for the future, and refuse to give up.

Tom

Notes to new readers:  Please watch for the next post on or about January 17.  A project description and several chapter drafts from the forthcoming book are linked on this page (see above).  Please see especially Chapter One: American Crucible.

Where is the Baseline?

When we begin to think strategically about the future, there are a number of imposing 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, crushing the small businesses we used to favor on Main Street, USA and dispersing our jobs to distant places.

Eventually corporate America decided it 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 then we became accustomed to “big-box stores” filled with cheapened goods manufactured somewhere far away by some other struggling people.

With the success of big business, the wealthy elite 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.

Large corporations have destroyed millions of small and medium-sized businesses, as well as the millions of decent jobs they once created.  Indeed, we now know that with very few exceptions large corporations are net destroyers of jobs.

In the last decade the American middle class, once the engine of American economic ascendancy, has in many ways ceased to exist.  With their role as “consumers” crippled by job losses and “hidden” inflation, many who were once in the middle class are now 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.  Huge impersonal corporations, for which honesty and responsibility serve no intrinsic purpose, show little concern for the consumer economy, much less the social and economic integrity of the nation.

As Americans we should be well-practiced at 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 away.  How are we to turn it around?

Will economic catastrophe force a rational re-ordering of things?  Or will individual foresight, ingenuity, and determination forge a new economic course?  Americans should know how to “think-out-of-the-box.”

Whether we face the chaotic state of collapse, or the confusion and disorder of a long grinding depression, it is apparent that ordinary Americans must find a way to build the foundations for effective governance and a renewed economic order.

But – where do we start?  Here in the 21st century, where is the baseline?

I suggest that our local communities are the only place where we have the power and potential to take initiative, to make things happen.

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 difficult and time-consuming, but they have been accomplished successfully over and over again for centuries.

This time is special.  We need community.

The unity needed for rebuilding begins with individual initiative – 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

A note to readers: This blog posts regularly; please watch for the next post on or about December 12.

Responsibility and Trust in America

Community is the seat of civilization. It is in our local communities that we engage with one another face-to-face and work shoulder-to-shoulder.  And, it is in responding to crises and meeting shared needs that we earn respect, learn patience and build trust.

With our neighbors we can overcome disorder in our own little corner of the world.  Trust and responsibility don’t just appear by good fortune.  They are formed in the trials of necessity and hardship.

Like a marriage, a genuine commitment to community forces us to mature as adult people – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.  Perhaps this is why so many avoid full participation.

However, there are other reasons to live responsibly.  Just beyond the boundaries of family, community is that place where the reality of immediate needs must be addressed and resolved.

Americans have avoided personal responsibility for these aspects of civilized life for a long time.  We will continue to do so at our peril.

It was not always thus.  Prior to the American Revolution and for close to 100 years afterward Americans gravitated easily, even impulsively, toward decentralized local governance and an independent frame of mind.  We managed our own affairs in cooperation with our neighbors and expected regional autonomy as a natural condition.

Civil society flourished during America’s first century, a vibrant force that was documented admiringly by Alexis de Tocqueville in his two volume commentary, Democracy in America.  Americans created an immense variety of civic organizations to address every conceivable interest and social need.  Citizens did this on their own initiative, inspired by their sense of belonging and the spirit of the times.  There were few restrictions or constraints.

The need for community in America, both in spirit and as a practical matter, is as important today as it has ever been.  It is only in direct engagement with our neighbors, and in all spheres of problem-solving, that we will learn the skills of living and working productively with one another.

As Americans, we have been here before and we can do it again.

Some argue that the decentralist tradition of the American past represents an ideal to which we should aspire.  And this is, indeed, an attractive vision.  However, I think it should be apparent for all to see that there must be a balance struck between a nation of fully engaged local communities and a competent and trustworthy central government that respects and protects the primacy of local responsibility.

At the present time it is difficult to imagine a limited central government managed by mature adults who are prepared to protect both our freedoms and our security.  But, that is what we need.

Without law there can be no freedom.  And, there can be no freedom without a mature understanding of responsibility.  I believe that a valid vision of limited government for the American future can only come from a view firmly anchored in local communities.

Those who understand trust, moral responsibility, and constructive action – and who recognize the very high stakes involved – will build the foundations for the American renewal at home, with their neighbors.

Building unity within communities is a gradual process.  It depends on each of us to reach out across our differences, to form friendships that develop trust, to be supportive in times of trouble, and to influence the hearts and minds of all who care.

It will take time and patience, creative thinking and new skills, and we will do it because America is too important to lose.  The future of humankind depends on it.

Tom

Dear readers: Watch for the next post on or about November 28.   Please note that a project description and several sample chapters from the forthcoming book are linked on this page.

Toward A Stronger America

The sorrows and shame of recent days are not unexpected or isolated in the American experience.  However, they rise now on the crest of a wave of fear and agitation, sharp reflections of extreme and intensifying social and economic pain.

We have arrived at a turning point.  Mean-spirited hostility and irrational violence challenge us to refocus our identity as Americans.  We have much to learn about seeking grace in the midst of trouble.

Recovering a future we can respect and believe in will not be easy.  Numerous emerging crises imperil an already fragile social order.  The coming years will call on each of us for courage and fortitude.

Perhaps most challenging, local community safety and resilience necessitate working together despite our diversity.  Meeting locally shared needs will be the priority in the face of severe crises.

Rising above our differences may seem an overwhelming obstacle, but I do not believe we have a choice.

A strong America will only be possible with sufficient unity to enable social stability and good governance.  And, unity can only be found with patience, forbearance, and a positive attitude – personal qualities that can best be locally grown.

Along with these qualities, communities need members with diverse practical skills, knowledge and experience.  There will be no security without working relationships that are trustworthy and dependable.

The qualities and skills we need to survive in the present may prove constructive as we move toward the future.  A right attitude for dealing with an immediate crisis will probably be the right attitude for working with one another to shape our destiny as a nation.

There will be no effective means for moving forward without a commitment to collaborate.  The ends we wish to achieve will be determined by the means we use to reach them.

This is not theory, but reality.

An honest consultative process, with ends and means in harmony, will gather and further develop the best ideas.  Positive change comes with fully inclusive citizen engagement.

Americans can do this.  The energy of citizens working in well-organized communities will generate a pattern that will prevail over time.  A resilient future will reflect the strength gained from lessons learned.

Regular readers know I will not prescribe political solutions.  Rather, I will suggest ground rules for collaboration and decision-making, and identify topics for dialog and consultation that can allow a truly American vision to emerge from the rich soil we have inherited from the past.

In addition to the difficulties we face in meeting local needs, we are also confronted with looming structural changes in the social economy and the wider world.  Community-building for survival is only the first step.

Unity of purpose can benefit from an accurate understanding of what is happening in the wider world.  However, distorted information and periods of confusion are inevitable.  Safety and stability is most important and will depend on steady hands – holding firmly to ethical principle and moral responsibility as individuals and as communities, wherever we find ourselves.

The clear thinking needed to overcome the threat of social disintegration can only come from citizens who understand trust, responsibility, and constructive action.  The stakes are very high.

Americans disagree often; we are a contentious lot.  Yet, our strength comes through a diversity that broadens our perspective, knowledge, and skills – and through our readiness to rise above our differences to build an open, free-spirited society.

Ultimately, the Constitution of the United States is essential as the anchor for safety.  The future depends on it.  And, the re-emergence of a healthy civil society will restore balance and character to the vision that sustains us.

The day will come when Americans will be known again for our generosity of spirit.  The pattern of the future will emerge from the learning we acquire as we struggle to conquer the challenges of this great turning point.

Tom

A note to regular readers:  Please watch for the next post on or about November 14.  I would appreciate your comments.  I value your feedback!