Yes, Americans Do Have Differences

I wrote recently of the value of teamwork in meeting local needs and making our communities safe (January 15).  I argued that faced with oncoming crises we would do well to respond in a constructive spirit – yet prepare for frustrations.

Working with neighbors can make a big difference in security and comfort. Agreement about practical needs and a willingness to focus on common purpose will make it easier to make things work.

This means rising above our differences to connect as allies and collaborators.  But, it will not be necessary to compromise our personal views and beliefs.  It is essential that we maintain our personal dignity and self-respect.

As we take on local problem-solving the challenge is to be both self-confident within ourselves – and respectful of others.

It can certainly be difficult to work with people.  Some difficulties are easier to overcome than others.  We can often make interpersonal connections with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, but sometimes it takes great patience and determination.

Why should we make this effort?

The coming days and years will redefine the meaning of crisis for everyone.  Safety will require that we can depend on our neighbors.  Learning how to listen well and understand one another will become an important part of learning how to survive and prevail in the face of great challenges.

The science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein once commented, “I never learned from a man who agreed with me.”

Coming to understand the personality and perspective of another person can be useful in itself, even if no possibility of agreement exists.

This can be the means for crystallizing our own thinking and beliefs.  And, if we approach it as a learning experience we will have much to gain, including knowledge, skills, and perspective.

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

Well, Aristotle did not attend high school, and neither have some of us.  But, it is our job to figure out what he meant and learn how to do it.

Aggravation aside, we are all capable of respecting the sincerity and intrinsic integrity of every human being, allowing our differences to exist freely in their own space, distinct from the roles of community-member, teammate, or friend.

Suppose we find ourselves dealing with a person who presents us with special challenges – perhaps someone who does not believe effective community is possible, or who values their privacy to an extreme, or is just unreceptive?

It is almost always possible to work with someone who we find difficult if we are determined to find a way.

It is prudent to remember, however, that in such circumstances we cannot allow ourselves be emotionally needy or easily disheartened.  Such an effort calls for backbone as well as a positive attitude and a generous spirit.

The wise do not impose themselves until they obtain a hearing.

If, however, we are able to plant the seeds of community in the fertile soil of the human heart, and water them gently with compassion and kindness, we may not have to wait long before the green shoots spring forth.

Often it is impossible to know why someone remains unresponsive despite our best efforts.  Pain is often hidden there, whether or not it is conscious.  And, caring will always give solace, however silently it is received.

When we make ourselves present in the life of another without expectation or demand, healing can take place even without our knowing – until the dam breaks and the words flow.

It might take days, weeks, or years.  But it will come.

In a little book called “The Miracle of Dialogue” (1963), the Christian theologian Dr. Reuel L. Howe wrote that “every man is a potential adversary, even those whom we love.  Only through dialogue are we saved from this enmity toward one another. Dialogue is to love what blood is to the body…. When dialogue stops, love dies and resentment and hate are born.

Tom

Note to readers: Watch for the next post on or about February 28.

A new chapter (in draft), “Confronted by the Past,” was posted on this page last weekend.  A project description and introduction to the coming book can also be found with the links above.  Please see especially Chapter One: American Crucible.

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.