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”.

America at a Tipping Point

To speak of rebuilding the foundations of the American Republic is certainly not to suggest deficiencies in the Constitution.  On the contrary, the founders created a structural bulwark for stability that must be defended vigorously.

The foundation that concerns us today is built with the integrity the Constitution requires of us: The responsibility, trustworthiness, and cooperation that transcends differences among citizens.

A reader commented that, “America is at a tipping point because every tenet [and] moral fiber of this nation has been diminished, so that no one is held accountable.  [There is] no moral compass because the foundations are removed.”

We do not have to agree on the details to recognize the truth in this view.  And, we cannot wait for somebody else to fix it.  It is time to stop complaining and join with those around us to secure the safety and well-being of our local communities.

Changing our attitude about this does not mean changing our opinions or compromising our principles.  Not at all!  To address people with dignity and kindliness will win their respect and loyalty.  Harsh and derogatory words will estrange and alienate.

If we wish to be heard – to share our views and represent our principles – we need to work with others in a way that makes this possible.  Communication will not be easy until we are ready to work shoulder-to-shoulder, to meet the needs we have in common and make things right.

No, this will not be easy. Many of us have serious differences. But addressing shared problems is the way mutual respect begins and interest in listening becomes genuine.

We will talk more about this later, but the important thing to recognize is that when the going gets tough, relationships count.  I don’t just mean with our next-door neighbors, as important as they are.  If we find ourselves under threat, directly or indirectly, the last thing we need is neighbors down the road or over the hill who are an unknown quantity.

And, we are not simply talking about making acquaintances here.  This is not about borrowing a cup of sugar over the back fence.  To make our communities safe and to rebuild the nation we need dependability. And that means trust.

Yes, well, in the midst of this crisis we find that trust is not something that Americans know much about.  Mostly we do not believe in it any more.  This is a big problem.

We cannot simply start trusting people because we wish for it.  The reality we live in is decidedly untrustworthy.  Most of the people around us do not have a clear concept of what trust means, much less an understanding of why it is important or what to do about it.

Change will take time.  The effort begins with the courage to be patient and accept differences. Let us not deny ourselves the maturity of forbearance and kindliness.

If we wish to be heard it is usually necessary to first convince others that we are actually hearing them.  Only then will we be heard.  In his book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People“, Stephen Covey wrote:

“If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across.  And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely.  So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand.”

Building dependable relationships with our neighbors requires grit and determination. We will win a few and lose a few, but the ones we win will move the nation forward – and might save lives.

The loss of trust has accompanied the loss of civil order and security in this country.  Solutions to these most serious and fundamental problems begin on the path back to trust.

Trustworthiness is the foundation of security.  Without trust America faces existential danger.  And, without forbearance and cooperation no trust – or progress – will be possible.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about August 12: Finding our balance in the storm.

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.

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.

The power which knowledge gives…

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“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

–James Madison

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

–Thomas Jefferson

A New Kind of Living

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“It contributes greatly towards a man’s moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate.”

–Nathaniel Hawthorne, Early American novelist

“You don’t think your way into a new kind of living. You live your way into a new kind of thinking.”

–Henri J. M. Nouwen, Christian mystic

Values That Matter

Readers responded last week to my request for thinking about shared values for a genuine American renewal. What values can we agree on, I asked, as a foundation for a unified starting point – a common American “center” that transcends culture, religion, politics?

[This exchange of ideas took place primarily on the blog’s Facebook page, where more than 80 readers clicked post like: http://www.facebook.com/freedomstruth ]

Ideas were offered and important points were made. Values were identified and we heard the deeply felt need for government policies that reflect them. Frustrations were expressed, as well as some feelings verging on hopelessness.

I wrote of my belief that a small unified core of determined Americans could generate a powerful moral presence, if we articulate essential values clearly and project a vision for the future with a compassionate and welcoming spirit.

This would be immensely attractive to a nation desperate for the feel of solid ground beneath its feet.

A dynamic initiative will not require large numbers at the start. It will grow rapidly. I believe the vision of a civil order based on trust and responsibility will draw Americans to it from every walk of life – from every religious faith, from every economic condition and political philosophy.

A signed pledge would make individual commitment very clear. Such a pledge could be added in the back of the book, if you think this is a good idea. Please let me know what you think.

The hard part is this: It will require a willingness to temporarily set aside some of the political differences that separate us – until such time as we have secured the stability necessary to address common problems in our communities.

What is essential is not that we agree on every aspect of personal belief, but that we join with one another to restore the integrity of a civil society that allows for constructive cooperation, engaging with one another respectfully, so that we can secure the safety of our families and the economic well-being of local and regional communities.

If this is our priority we cannot allow America to disintegrate in unrestrained acrimony and hostility. We will have to choose our battles. Some will have to be fought on another day.

My request for your thinking may not have been clear regarding the distinction between government policies and the principles behind them. My intention here is to take the first step in building a foundation on which we can then proceed to structure debate and build policy.

Among genuinely committed Americans, finding common ground in our values will alter perceptions and increase our ability to actually listen to one another.

Stephen Covey wrote that “most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand.” If Americans are to recover the vision of this country as free and fair, this will have to change.

In his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote:
Every human has four endowments — self awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom, the power to choose, to respond, to change.

Our challenge is to establish a condition, a mental space, in which we can sustain this freedom and attract our fellow-Americans to it.

Having asked you last week to identify the values that should characterize such a condition, I will share those that I consider essential for a free and just society.

I add these to our commitment to defend the Constitution and respect the rule of law: Justice, equity, truthfulness, honesty, fair-mindedness, reliability, trustworthiness, and responsibility.

There you have it. These values are essentially universal, having been taught by every world religion down through the ages. Unfortunately, many of the followers of religion don’t get it, and so our work is cut out for us.

I would appreciate receiving another round of feedback from readers. Please focus your comments on basic values and the principles to live by – and share the reasons why you think the future of the world depends upon them.

Tom

In the coming weeks: Economic reconstruction and a future built on fairness.

Note to readers: You can support this blog and the book project by suggesting that your friends and associates take a look.

Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

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“An attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes.”

–Ayn Rand

“They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything’. As the means so the end.”

–Mohandas Gandhi

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Ends and Means

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“The principle that the ends justify the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals.”

–F. A. Hayek

“He who chooses the beginning of the road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determine the end.”

–Harry Emerson Fosdick

A Shattered World

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“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.”

–Helen Keller

The Loss of Ultimate Purpose

The idea of individualism has been an emotional force in the American experience since the earliest days. Indeed, the association between independence and individualism has been a source of honor and pride in the American mind. Yet, there has been a clear-cut divergence between the rich, spontaneous civic life that characterized much of early American history, and, at the same time, a history of violence and brutality revealing an arrogance that defies accountability.

Extreme anti-social behavior will evoke revulsion in most of us. But, historically, the dark side of individualistic pride has been socially acceptable, even conspicuous, in racist attitudes and practices toward American Indians and African-Americans. And, we have an unfortunate legacy of gang violence, punctuated by the Mafia, drugs, and prostitution.

However, the destruction we are now seeing goes far deeper. We have witnessed a profound deterioration of moral character and social responsibility in recent years, impacting American society broadly.

As we all know, mass murders and sexual crimes are proliferating on a scale not imagined a few years ago. Children are growing up without effective parenting and without civilized values. The growing loss of moral responsibility even among older adults is especially disturbing. And, it does not stop there. Institutions we have depended upon are facing financial bankruptcy; systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.

How is it that we have so completely lost our way, our sense of purpose, our understanding of the integrity of our place in the world? The answer is not simple, but there has surely been a shift in attitude. America has seen the loss of a once dynamic and thriving civil society, followed by the degradation of social discourse in the face of overwhelming materialism.

Clearly, the individualism that requires mutual respect and embraces civic responsibility will remain ever vulnerable to the dishonor of undisciplined individuals who lose their moral compass.

If Americans wish to regain a civil society in which we engage in meaningful discourse and join one another to resolve problems, we will need to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and face the complex of dangers that now confront us.

Some have suggested that certain ways of thinking we inherited from the past have led to fragmentation in the way we see and understand the world. Certainly early American settlers were influenced by the loss of religious and cultural roots, the dangers of frontier life, and the nomadic and transient qualities of American life generally. But, the degeneration of the social order is a more recent development. America has, most certainly, not always been the way we see it now.

A healthy nation depends on an engaged and upbeat civil society. Instead we have witnessed a steady erosion of values, the loss of personal and social responsibility, and an accelerating disintegration of the social order.

We now find ourselves at a critical turning point, confronted by the practical consequences of generalized anger and, at times, the emotional rejection of any perceived restraint. Most importantly, we have lost a sense of ultimate purpose – and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends. All this has made us vulnerable both to our own vices and to the predatory interests and manipulative power of institutions that know our weaknesses.

We will enlarge on these thoughts in the coming weeks with observations from the early American chronicler Alexis de Tocqueville, economic historian Niall Ferguson, and the iconic conservative philosopher, Richard M. Weaver.

Your comments will be much appreciated.

Tom