Finding Courage in Crisis

The courage to step forward in a time of crisis often means responding to pain and frustration with a commitment to moral responsibility.  This can be especially challenging when it feels like the world is unraveling.

To persevere through disruptions and turmoil we need a vision of the future that embodies constructive purpose.  Personal values and sense of integrity become vitally important.

However, thoughts and ideas are useless without action.

What is to be done?

We must never forget that there can be no freedom without responsibility.  This is the backbone of a free society and an inescapable requirement of the human soul.

Civilization itself cannot exist without the committed responsibility of citizens.  This is our country and our world, and the problems we face belong to us.

In my view, a commitment to the foundations of civil order is a commitment to our own personal integrity.

We would do well to consider our sense of belonging, who we are and what integrity means to us.  This will strengthen self-sufficiency and sense of purpose.

Self-sufficiency and purpose give us self-confidence; both are important.  Self-sufficiency concerns practical matters and will-power.  But purpose has to do with ideas, and ideas can be problematic.

So, let’s think about this.

Sense of purpose is a personal matter, yet it would be useless in a vacuum.  Each of us is a member of the society in which we live.  And. being truly alive places us in motion.

We learn to live with life’s fluid nature and to adapt to change.  If we are not engaged, thinking and responding, we are not paying attention.

Purpose implies a future.  It would be easy to attach ourselves unwittingly to ideas or expectations that are based solely on the past.

There is both strength and danger here.

Most of us attach ourselves to long-held assumptions.  This lends itself to stability, as long as we keep our minds open.  We need consistency to follow through with plans.  Otherwise nothing would get done.

But, at a time of extraordinary disruption and change, when the future is dark or hard to imagine, expectations need to be flexible and purpose must depend on a strong spirit and time-tested values.

We know what kind of world we wish to live in, at least in general terms, but expectations will have no ground to stand on during a long crisis.

In the coming years we can expect to be bombarded by sequential crises.

Safety will depend on dependable community, despite our differences.  A readiness to rise above our differences is a necessity in genuine community.  Survival may depend on it.

However, a vision for the future can only be built upon mutual respect and understanding, rather than on the assumptions of a crumbling past.

In the midst of chaos, “constructive action” can be understood as the means by which we unite and advance toward intended goals, not away from them.

So, let’s keep two priorities in mind:  First, to identify values that are capable of guiding us through turmoil.  Second, to stay alert, allowing flexibility of judgment and readiness to adjust our thinking as conditions change.

If we believe in freedom, we cannot allow presuppositions to control the future.  That is not what freedom is about.

Assumptions carried with us from the past are dinosaurs that threaten our ability to build the future.  Principle must be permitted to guide our way, always responding to the realities at hand.

We may dislike the conditions in which we find ourselves at any particular moment.  We may determine to alter them.  But, to be rigid and inflexible will court disaster.

Our independence as free people depends on engaging effectively with ever-changing circumstances.

We are challenged to keep our balance at the vortex of historic change, to uphold the spirit of liberty, and remain ever resistant to absolutism and bigotry.

Personal integrity, trustworthiness and responsibility, will keep us on track through the storm.

To survive and to serve, we must summon the courage to spread our wings and soar on the wind.

Tom

Please look for the next blog post on or about September 10.

Note to new readers:  A project description, an introduction to the book, and several chapter drafts are linked at the top of this page.

Security Begins at Home

If local communities are to serve as the foundation for reclaiming the American spirit and sense of purpose, we must learn how to make them strong, dependable, and resilient.

Many of us do not know our immediate neighbors, much less those around the corner or down the road.  If we want good people to depend on in a serious crisis, this has to change.

Good neighbors are earned.

Intractable problems can be resolved with access to a diversity of knowledge and skills — when we team up with others.  Food security is going to be a concern, and we need people we can trust when the banks close or the power goes out for days or weeks.

Whatever the details, most can see that we are hovering on the edge of extreme conditions.  A wide variety of impending crises are coming into view almost simultaneously.

I have shared my thinking with you about the essential role of local communities.  I have explained why I believe communities, and networks of communities, will become the platform Americans depend on to meet local needs and move forward with common purpose.

Community will be the only place in the extreme days ahead where we have the ability and ready-made opportunity to control our destiny.  We would do well to look around and assesses our circumstances.

Those of you who are naturally outgoing will find the following discussion simplistic.  But for others the challenge of reaching out to strangers and proposing a common endeavor will be more imposing.

It will take courage to accept responsibility for the future.

There are several aspects to consider: 1) getting acquainted with strangers, 2) identifying unmet needs in your neighborhood, 3) explaining our ideas effectively and motives honestly, and 4) organizing cooperation to address common practical needs.

Community-wide efforts can involve lots of things.  These might include local security, growing and preserving food, attracting youth to constructive pursuits, initiating small business enterprises, and troubleshooting technical problems that require creative thinking or specialized skills – such as electrical power, safe drinking water, and waste disposal.

Any of these possibilities can be placed on the table when we are getting acquainted.  Hearing a range of possible benefits for engaging in mutual assistance can jump-start resistant minds.

Unless we already know someone well, the first step will be getting acquainted and thinking together about improving our circumstances.  A warm, friendly exchange of simple ideas can be the basis for more substantive engagement down the road.

Try to begin by inviting people to share their feelings and views before you do.  This will provide you with helpful information, and it will make it easier for them to listen to you.  Do not pry or press.  If, however, you can get another person talking, you will then find them far more open to hearing from you.

Once new acquaintances begin to warm to you, invite them to think with you about ways the community can be improved.  Invite ideas and suggest some of your own. If you find an opening, share your hopes for the future.

It is best to downplay the more serious political or emotional issues until we have built a stronger positive connection.  If you meet unreceptive people, don’t push.  Be friendly and useful; stay in touch.

As relationships grow, watch for ways to demonstrate the practical benefits of a supportive community.

Soon we can begin to introduce people to each other.  Small social gatherings can get us better acquainted.  While remaining informal, we can introduce ideas by floating questions.  How can we assist one another?

What problems or unmet needs do we know of? Who has skills?  What skills would be we like to learn?

As we come to know one another better, we can begin to discuss our willingness to rise above our differences when needs are great or the stakes are high.

First we are human, then we are neighbors, and, finally, we are Americans who care.  As individuals we can be none of these things in isolation.

The future of the United States is of immense importance – but the foundations of our reality are at home.

Tom

A note to readers:  This blog posts every two weeks. Watch for the next post on or about March 14.

An introduction to the forthcoming book and several chapter drafts are posted on this site.  Please see especially Chapter One: American Crucible.

 

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.

Freedom Road

When we think about a future beyond the long crisis ahead, we find ourselves confronted with challenging questions.  Among them is the meaning and implications of “perfect freedom” — the principle articulated by Patrick Henry, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and others.

Patrick Henry famously said, “Perfect freedom is as necessary to the health and vigor of commerce as it is to the health and vigor of citizenship.”

Many Americans consider this as an unyielding principle.  But context matters.  Those following this blog over time have, I expect, given thought to the limits of freedom we experience in our personal lives.  We all live in a reality defined by limitations and constraints.

A democratic society that provides the security and social order needed for the freedoms we treasure will always present us with limits.  The decisions we make concerning personal relationships, education, employment, and recreation impose the most immediate constraints in our daily lives.

So, what is ‘perfect freedom’?

If we are committed to ‘perfect freedom’ in principle, how can we fault business leaders for maximizing profits by moving jobs overseas or mechanizing assembly lines or in using any other means absent of fraud?

What else can we expect?  And, how can any alternative be legislated with fairness or practical effect?

Yet, we are now forced to recognize that even capitalism itself cannot survive in a world where “anything goes.”

Healthy businesses depend on stable economic policies, predictability, and the accuracy of price-seeking markets.  Free markets are necessary because prices in the marketplace must reflect reality for both buyers and sellers.

These are basic structural necessities that make economic freedom possible. No commerce and no functional economy is possible without it.

Freedom depends on respect for the rules that make it possible.

Today we find ourselves facing the overwhelming consequences of structural economic destruction.  Capital is monopolized by a tiny minority, and it is parked in unproductive places.  Money is not circulating, which limits economic activity.

A vibrant consumer economy has been derailed and the middle class hobbled.

The functional integrity of free markets has been abandoned to the self-centered interests of predatory individuals and institutions.  And that is not all.

Money and power now flow in the virtual reality of electronic networks, largely independent of the productive economy.  The new network economy is global, while jobs and people, community and responsibility all remain locally constrained in the real world.

Americans have entered a major turning point.

Placing blame is of little use when we are confronted with such extremes.  Yes, we must understand our predicament.   But, it is essential that we then turn our attention to re-imagining and re-configuring the future.

We need to think creatively and think together, calling on partisan adversaries to pull in their horns, get practical and apply themselves locally.

For many, the jobs we had are gone for good.  Incomes have stagnated or deteriorated for decades.  Most significantly, many of us have lost our means for living with self-respect.

Making an income influences our sense of dignity and well-being.  Unemployment and poverty are not simply insufficiencies of income.  They have a debilitating impact on individual freedom, initiative, and capacity.

Poverty and overwhelming debt are more than regrettable misfortunes.  They inflict a serious drag on a productive economy and are a blight on liberty.

Local communities can choose to overcome this barrier.  Individuals with practical experience can share knowledge and skills, assisting others to step out of our old lives and gain new competencies.

Each of us can look around, think creatively, and take initiative – cooperating where necessities become obvious and building businesses that address local and regional needs.

Locally and regionally-based economies need to be reconstructed, transcending the chaos around us and surmounting the stumbling blocks thrown up by government and big business.

We can network with people in nearby communities to share ideas and resources, to find (or offer) learning opportunities, and to expand our horizons.

Americans are smart, industrious, and resourceful.  We can rise to the challenge and free one another from the shackles of limited perspective and inadequate skills.

Working together requires many things, among them patience, vision, creative imagination, cooperation and generosity of spirit.

These are choices that are ours to make.

Tom

Please watch for the next post on or about September 27.

The Forward Edge of History

The vision of America that came to life with the birth of the Nation was unprecedented in history.  It is subverted today by a bitter divisiveness that disallows dialog and obstructs decision-making.

To regain the integrity of that vision – and to build a future we can all believe in, Americans must navigate carefully through currents of alienation, hostility, and misinformation.

Violence begets violence in a downward spiral, verbal or otherwise. Words can ignite fierce, uncontrollable fires.  And, irresponsible, dishonest or self-serving actions can do the same.

Destructiveness can take many forms.

When the banks nearly collapsed in 2008, the United States hovered on the edge of catastrophe.  Americans discovered that failures of responsibility, foresight, and common sense involved the very people and institutions we depend on.

We were stunned by the foolishness that came to light in places where we are most vulnerable.  It was a startling discovery: A cavalier disregard for the interests of both citizens and nation – by institutions we had previously regarded as models of dependability.

In retrospect, however, we can see that this crisis has long been coming, and that it reveals far more than foolishness.

For many years we have watched a broad social deterioration in America that comes with a self-centered lack of principles and the absence of genuine values.

Respected national leaders have stained themselves.  We have even seen immoral and deeply hurtful actions committed by religious leaders and clergy, the supposed exemplars of integrity.

Where will it stop?  In addition to the material damage done to our lives, the rampant failure of responsibility appearing at the core of our society is demoralizing.

There is nothing more destructive.  Indeed, it strikes at the foundations of civilization.

It is easy to get caught up in emotional feelings at a time like this.  We have healing work to do.  If we wish to reaffirm the ultimate purpose of this great nation, it will be necessary to modulate our speech and better manage our emotions.

Times of peril require that we communicate carefully and avoid contributing to inflamed passions, however offended we may be.  Hurled accusations and insults make it impossible for others to hear reason.

The trouble with blame is, first, that it tends to be indiscriminate. It blinds us to the complexity of circumstances, and to the plural identities of those who disagree with us, or who may have just made some bad mistakes.

We often fail to see that we share many similar values and commitments with those who anger us.

Secondly, blaming will blind us to looming perils that are the fault of no one.  A fierce storm has come upon us.  We need each other if we are to take responsibility for the needs of our local communities.

Make no mistake: A storm of this magnitude will alter everyone’s perspective.  It is essential that we transcend personal fear, resisting its attendant passions, and learn to work with those around us.  We will build from there.

Some of you have expressed serious doubts that this is possible.

I never said it would be easy; I said we have no choice.  If we are unable to confront crises shoulder-to-shoulder as loyal Americans, freedom will be lost in the chaos of the deepening storm.

This will require patience, cooperation, and learned skills.  We must try to see the end in the beginning – the vision of a civil society where respectfulness, fairness, and moral responsibility prevail and freedom of expression is nurtured and defended.

This vision and purpose might just be worth our learning to get along, even for the most doubtful among us.  Local communities are the one place where we can be assured of having the freedom and capacity to make this happen.

Steadfast determination and the legendary American generosity of spirit are among the virtues that will be called upon again and again in the coming days.

We will not escape this great turning point in human history.  It will inflict tests upon us whether or not we respond with dignity and compassion – whether or not we take our rightful place at the forward edge of history.

Tom

A note to readers:  The blog will take a break until after Christmas.  Please watch for the next post on or about December 29.

If you wish to know more about the project you can find a description, along with an introduction to the forthcoming book and several chapter drafts elsewhere on this page.

Liberty, Responsibility, Integrity

I have suggested here that liberty is the outgrowth and result of justice.  I believe true liberty is found when we bring ourselves into alignment with justice.  And, this can only be accomplished through moral responsibility and accountability.

The implications of this proposition are profound.  Let’s unpack it.

I understand moral responsibility to be the ability to respond on the basis of conscience, using personal judgment regarding our responses to the world around us.  And, I hope we will act with moderation, and base our actions on careful consideration of the principles of justice to the best of our ability.

We will not agree on many things, but moral responsibility requires that we think and act carefully with regard for our fellow human beings and the well-being of our communities.

A friend once pointed out to me that the meaning of “responsibility” is suggested in the compound word, “response-ability.”  Without this ability, justice cannot be realized and liberty has no purpose.

We heard from Viktor Frankl several weeks ago in a blog post entitled “The Resilience of Inner Freedom.”  Dr. Frankl emerged from his World War II ordeal in a Nazi death camp with the firm conviction that freedom can only be secured through responsibility.

Freedom,” he wrote, “is not the last word.  Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth.  Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness.  In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”

For many of us, seeking freedom in our lives is a gradual process of maturing, letting go of dependencies, and trying to make a go at life with what resources we can gather or create.

This much is meaningful for a time.  However, we soon begin to realize that the society in which we live, and the material limitations in our lives, impose themselves on us in uncomfortable ways.

Do we then give in to rebellion – or feeling sorry for ourselves?  Or, do we seek dignity in the face of limitation, assert control over our personal shortcomings, and engage constructively with the world around us?

Many of us find it necessary to construct the lives we wish for from the wreckage of past mistakes, our own and those of others, and are grateful simply for the opportunity to do so.  Even cleaning up a mess can offer a certain satisfaction.

Still, self-respect cannot wait for things to change.  We are each capable of responding to the world around us with dignity and creativity, and we must.  This requires initiative and constructive action.

Seeking to accept responsibility depends on our circumstances.  What I am suggesting here, however, is that a core responsibility underlies all others: This is the imperative to build and protect trust.

Why is this critically important?  Because ultimately all complex problem-solving depends on trust.

This is because, fundamentally, justice depends on trust.

Without trust, justice (and liberty) will remain elusive, and the fabric of this nation will continue to disintegrate.  Trust is the substance of integrity.  It will be essential for building the future.

A principled integrity gains primacy in our very identity, our character and way of being.  But, it can easily be squandered in a moment of carelessness.

So, there you have it: Integrity is the necessary quality of being; trustworthiness is the substance of that quality; and, responsibility provides the constructive action with which we make it so.

Finally, justice is the beginning and the end, the matrix that holds it all together.

To put this in another way, responsibility follows immediately from personal integrity and is the expression of it.  Social order and stability depend on this.  When responsibility is understood and applied to the challenges we face, progress is possible.  Otherwise the integrity of intention is lost.

There is no middle ground.  Either integrity and responsibility are wholly present or they are compromised.  Without them no civilization is possible.

Tom

A note to readers:  I wish to express my gratitude to regular readers, particularly on the Facebook page, for your active engagement and constructive feedback.  I could not reasonably proceed otherwise.  Please look for the next post on or about July 28.

To See for Ourselves

We each have the ability to see and interpret things for ourselves.  Yet, all too often we allow other people (and their agendas) to influence our own best judgment.  Naturally, we are attracted to views that support our preconceived assumptions, but can we really depend on others for the truth?

The dishonesty and deceit of partisan politics runs rampant.  Mass media is particularly insidious, creating a variety of alternative realities and imposing them on us in an incoherent stream of sound bites and disconnected images.

Social media is worse.  When our friends post an opinionated viewpoint on Facebook, does that make it true?  Can we determine our own independence and objectivity?

How can we test the accuracy of cherished perceptions?  What means do we have for seeking truth in the midst of upheaval?

We can never fully comprehend the reality in which we live, physically or spiritually.  But, hidden behind every disruption (and illusion) there is a stability we can depend on.  The world survives repeated cataclysms, always recovering its balance and somehow progressing despite human delusions, duplicity, and chicanery.

In the previous post I proposed a way to keep our balance.  I wrote of a dependable, self-sustaining foundation underlying the whole of reality, both material and spiritual, which has the character of justice.

We would do well to align ourselves with this standard, to unite with its’ principles and meet its’ conditions as best we can.

Religious people may recognize this truth as a manifestation of God’s Grace.  Others might see it as a function of the integrity of the natural order in the universe.  I believe both are true.

A balanced and coherent unity can be recognized in both the human and natural worlds, when they are freed from manipulation.

The elegant balance found in nature will, if left alone, always manage itself with a highly sensitive, yet robust and resilient functionality.

Human society has a similarly purposeful balance.  But, this is often distorted by insistent efforts to control things according to our selfish desires, rather than with any sense of the right order of things.

Religion has taught us of the interdependence and integrity of the relationships that form the fabric of human communities.  Science has shown us that the earth’s biosphere is a delicate web of life arranged in an integrated network of networks.

Whether in human affairs or in the natural world, any disruption or harm inflicted upon the balance will incur consequences that may not be immediately apparent.  Yet the repercussions of injury and injustice spread rapidly abroad, as each impact leads to others in widening circles that extend themselves in perpetuity.

Why is this important to our understanding of freedom?  Understanding the fundamental form and function of things allows us to see things for ourselves without undue influence from others.

While dialog and consultation can be important safeguards, the ability to recognize the consequences of events for ourselves, “to see the end in the beginning,” allows us to determine our own course of action freely, independently.

And, recognizing the far-flung after-effects of our own deeds provides us with a degree of protection from engaging in overly emotional, ill-conceived, or destructive acts.

A cursory review of human history reveals numerous examples of poorly conceived actions leading to disastrous consequences.  As we have all seen, both individuals and groups are quite capable of serious error.

How does this happen?  Well, sometimes we think we have everything figured out when, in fact, our information is limited and we are only aware of parts of the truth.

It is important to look for diversity of experience and perspective when we consult with others.  Only then can we step back to think critically for ourselves.

Always mindful of the foundation of justice, which is a given, (and rechecking our own motives periodically), will pay ever greater dividends in constructive outcomes and the avoidance of unnecessary trouble.

The framework of justice is a gift that will not go away.

However destructive unjust acts may be, the foundations of reality remain trustworthy, unperturbed and uncompromised – even in the darkest night.

Tom

Please watch for the next post on or about July 14.

New readers please note that posts adapted from the forthcoming book will usually appear on Fridays at both the main blog site and the Facebook page.  To receive emailed alerts, click “Follow” on this page.

Liberty and Justice: Beginning or End?

Neither liberty or justice can be pulled out of the air or handed to us by those in authority.  These are aspects of the elemental substance of reality and they depend on our actions.

It is through personal responsibility that we find the personal freedom to act on the principles of justice.  There can be no liberty without responsibility.

As we saw in the previous blog, personal liberty can be asserted even in the most terrible circumstances.  In a troubled world this is important to understand.  If we are to keep our balance when the ground is shifting under our feet, how can we best prepare ourselves?

We must do more than prepare materially for hard times, although that is important, too.

How can we find the moral and mental strength to persevere?  How can we take a long view in the midst of chaos – to gain a sense of ultimate purpose and a vision of the future we can believe in?

If we seek an even temper and a steady hand when the world around us is coming unhinged, I believe it will be with a firm understanding of the ground on which we stand.  And, I believe the ground of human reality is defined and governed by justice,

I know it is difficult to see justice in the midst of the present disarray.  So, let’s think for a moment about the world we were given, the real world – before we messed it up.

It is my firm conviction that there is an integral order underlying all things, and it has the character of justice.  This is the ultimate ground of the reality of things.

Stated briefly, justice can be understood as the ultimate balance manifested in the self-sustaining structure of things.  Or, to put it in another way, justice is a dynamic framework upon which all things depend, and which remains unified and transcendent despite the disruptions caused by human activity.

We can learn to see this “original” reality with our own eyes (and not through the eyes of others), and to understand it for ourselves without being swayed by others.

Justice is the governing principle and inherent character of this truth.  In my view, there is a reason to believe that this character is indestructible and will prevail in the end.  And, it is what allows us to keep our balance in a disturbed world.

Whether this idea is viewed through religious or philosophical eyes, all of us can benefit by gaining confidence in the ground we stand on.  It is reasonable, it is dependable, and it offers a stable basis for constructive action.

Everyone sees things differently and none of us can comprehend ultimate truth.  Yet, the concept proposed here can be helpful in maintaining our composure, and in determining the right course of action in difficult circumstances.

Such an understanding can be the starting point for both thinking and action.

If we are to rebuild our communities and nation in a constructive and principled manner, it will be necessary to adjust with flexibility to the unexpected changes that come with crises.

America is staggering under the assaults of discord, divisiveness, and hostility.  If this nation is worth saving, it is up to each of us as individuals – to reach out to those who are struggling with hardship, to rise above our differences and to unite with our neighbors to address our shared needs constructively.

Justice will come when we forge an indestructible unity with true American generosity of spirit.  There will always be differences.  It will be shared needs and common purpose that matter.

If we cannot win over a few with the invitation to selfless responsibility and mutual respect, leave them to themselves.  Some will insist on learning the hard way.  Join with those who are ready and get on with the work!

Understanding the ground of justice gives us confidence when exercising responsibility, building trustworthy relationships, and conducting our lives with integrity.

Justice furnishes the ordered condition in which we have the opportunity to bring ourselves into balance with the world of existence as it truly is – and as I believe it is meant to be.

Tom

Dear readers, I depend on your comments and constructive feedback.  Please look for the next post on or about June 30.

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.

Freedom or Paralysis

We often think of freedom as a principle without consideration for its requirements or even of what it actually means.  Impediments to freedom are experienced in many forms.  Personal obstacles can be oppressive.  The constraints and obligations imposed by our workplace, our families, and society in general are familiar to everyone.

Freedom for the individual, it seems, is conditional.  Yet, we can choose to respond with maturity and self-control.  We generally understand and accept the limitations we experience, however much they chafe.  And there are principles we cherish despite the challenges they present.

There is much to talk about here.  But, I wish to focus on our response to life’s inevitable constraints, especially in the context of crises, and the choices we can make if we wish to work effectively with others.

Most of us cooperate with most of what society asks of us most of the time.  We accept the rules that regulate athletic contests, vehicular traffic, and commerce.

Rules make it possible to ensure fairness, to strategize and compete.  It is the relative certainty of fairness and predictability that allows businesses to plan and invest in the future, an economy to be productive, and our personal lives to be sane.

Similarly, it is honesty, candor, and civility that are most conducive to constructive dialog and decision-making in any organization or community.  These may not be “rules”, but they are values we cannot do without.  They are shared norms that lead to trust.

When we are confronted with chaotic and unpredictable conditions, our first step can always be to address the need for conditions that allow effective communication and encourage practical dialogue.

Progress toward social and economic reconstruction will require that we work together in a civil manner, regardless of our differences.  Problem-solving cannot take place otherwise.

Some folks think organized cooperation as impossible.  But, it will be impossible to ensure safety or meet basic needs in our communities if our differences preclude collaboration.

The iconic conservative philosopher Richard Weaver, who we heard from in the previous post, would say this goal represents a formidable task; that it would require us to confront a national character uncomfortable with form, resistant to leadership, and impatient with any systematic process.  He called America “a nation which egotism has paralyzed.”

We have seen how egotism has diverted our attention from serious purpose in our infatuation with expensive toys, in our descent into personal and public indebtedness, and in a sordid media voyeurism that forgoes all pretensions of privacy.

Weaver called it “the spirit of self, which has made the [citizen] lose sight of the calling of his task and to think only of aggrandizement.”

Is it this “spirit of self” that has led us to the meaningless disorder in which we now find ourselves, where self-indulgence overwhelms rational judgment, motivation and foresight?

I see some truth in this, but I believe we must look more deeply into the character of a people who have risen to every test in the past.

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

All form has structural limits and all limits provide the means for leverage.  It is the consistent dependability of this reality that allows us to launch ourselves into new frontiers of learning and experience, to control the direction of our efforts, to instigate, organize, create.

Without the constraints of necessity, (which include our own values), we would have no capacity to direct our energy and intelligence, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

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

We cannot leap without a firm foundation beneath our feet.  We cannot fly without wings.

It is in the encounter between discipline and necessity that we find the ground of freedom.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about April 21:  The Freedom Within.

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.