If We Are to Remain Free

The United States Constitution is a legal document.  It is carefully crafted in structure and intentionality.  But it is far more than a simple contract.  It embodies a vision and a trust.  It was prepared for us by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.

It is important that we understand this because the Constitution comes to us as the gift of an inheritance.  The freedom it promises is made real in a legislative order and in the protections it provides.

These are among the essential elements of a society that provides both stability and the creative space to forge a future.

I have been sharing my observations with you about the impediments we face if we are to make this gift effective.

The authors of the Constitution made deliberate assumptions about the character of the American people.  Their contract with us was an act of faith, an expression of the belief that Americans could be entrusted with the future.

This is made clear in the Constitution itself.

In the previous post I shared views from several of the Founders quoted by Charles Murray in his book, “Coming Apart”.  I will repeat two of them here:

Patrick Henry was insistent: “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.”

And, George Washington in his farewell address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

“Everyone involved in the creation of the United States,” writes Charles Murray, “knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry–not gentility, but virtue…. In their various ways the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”

How do we feel about this idea?  It’s a little scary, wouldn’t you say?

There were reasons why the Founders thought this way.  A high degree of moral responsibility was necessary, Charles Murray continues, “because of the nearly unbridled freedom that the American Constitution allowed the citizens of the new nation. 

“Americans were subject to criminal law… and to tort law, which regulated civil disputes. But otherwise, Americans faced few legal restrictions on their freedom of action and no legal obligations to their neighbors except to refrain from harming them.

“The guides to their behavior at any more subtle level had to come from within.”

Virtues are the substance of good character.  But this is not instilled in us by nature.

Good character cannot be formed in a vacuum.  We learn what matters in life by engaging meaningfully with other people.  Personal character matures by means of relationship.

Regular readers will not be surprised when I suggest that virtues can only be lived and learned in community—where constructive relationships call for trust and dependability.

In genuine community we experience the necessity for trust every day—for truthfulness, trustworthiness, responsibility.

Without such virtues, life in human society is intolerable and security is out of reach.

Need I say more?  Just look around you.

How can we trust and respect others, you will ask, if they do not trust and respect us?  Well, breaking down barriers will take honest determination.

Living in community requires certain virtues.  Adjusting to such disciplined conditions will take time, but the necessity must be confronted openly.

Dialog is the essence of genuine relationship.  Developing character starts here.

Without give-and-take a relationship does not exist and problem-solving is impossible.

We may not respect the beliefs or behaviors of other people.  But without a readiness to engage, to communicate openly and honestly, we are lost.  This is how people change and grow.

If we cannot offer guidance patiently and believe in the potential for change, living in this world will never be safe or happy.

Our differences support problem-solving.  Diversity brings experience and perspective, knowledge and skills.

We need these things.  They are the instruments of safety and order.

However, differences that come at us with ugliness are a threat to all these things.  Ugliness exhausts and debilitates.  Mean-spiritedness pushes people away and shuts the door to life.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about September 8.

Freedom, Responsibility, Integrity

I have suggested here that liberty is closely related to justice.  I believe true liberty can only be found when we align ourselves with justice.  We gradually come to recognize the outlines of justice as we mature into adulthood.  So it is that we learn the value of truthfulness, trust, and moral responsibility.  The implications of this are profound.  Let’s unpack it.

We will not agree on many things, but some principles overstep our differences.  Moral responsibility is one—and it requires that we think and act with respect for our fellow human beings.

A friend once pointed out that the meaning of “responsibility” is suggested in the compound word, “response-ability.”  Without this ability, there can be no justice and liberty has no purpose.

Viktor Frankl, a medical doctor who survived imprisonment in two Nazi death camps during World War 2, came through his ordeal with a firm belief 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.”

Seeking freedom begins in the process of maturing: We let go of selfishness, bad habits and dependencies, and try to make a go at life with what resources we can gather or create.

This is meaningful and sufficient 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?  Do we sink into feeling sorry for ourselves?  Or, do we choose dignity rather than doubt, assert control over our shortcomings, and engage constructively with what confronts 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 provide a certain satisfaction.

Still, self-respect cannot wait for things to change that we have no control over.  We are each capable of responding to the world around us with dignity and creativity, and we must.

This requires initiative, a positive attitude and constructive action.

The meaning of responsibility can depend 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 important?  Because ultimately all constructive relationships depend on trust. Social stability, justice, and effective governance all depend on trust. Without the assurance of trust, liberty and justice 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 a future we can believe in.

When we are self-respecting persons, we seek to acquire a principled integrity that defines our character and our way of being.

Please keep in mind, however, that such a blessing can easily be squandered in a moment of carelessness.

So, there you have it: Integrity is the highest attainable value—a quality of moral soundness. Trustworthiness is the substance of that value; and, responsibility provides the constructive action with which we make it so.

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

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

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about August 12.

A project description and introduction to the coming book, along with completed drafts of several chapters, can be found at the top of the homepage.

The Ground of Freedom

The interdependence of freedom and responsibility is elemental.  Knowing this allows us to live our lives with integrity.  It informs us of the contours of justice.  And yet rational thinking alone cannot determine the foundations for justice.

So it is that agreement on a framework for a just and livable environment is the first order of business for every functional community, large or small.

Living and working together as neighbors depends on a shared understanding of justice—an understanding embodied in a consensual moral consciousness.

Secure communities depend on this.  And it is a condition we can only arrive at by means of dialog and consultation.

Making morals and making community are, it has been said, a single mutually dependent process.

We all have ideas about what is right and good, but where do our ideas come from?  Do we make them up from scratch?

The capacity of the mind to conceive and envision personal freedom hints that self-assurance should rightfully be ours.  Yet, a finite world imposes limits on our freedom even as society depends on moral responsibility.

We are aware of the ease with which we can slip into error, over-stepping the bounds of honesty and integrity in little everyday ways.

To protect ourselves from error, both great and small, we need to see with our own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and to think independently with our own minds.

Many are resistant to recognizing the boundaries between justice and injustice, goodness and evil.  But make no mistake: Every human being is endowed with this ability.

Whatever our religious faith or philosophical belief system, the independent investigation of truth is our first responsibility.

Each of us is vulnerable to the error of transgressing the boundaries of freedom and finiteness that safeguard equilibrium in the world.  We each tread a rocky path strewn with obstacles.

My greatest concern, which I hope you might share, is the powerful influence of strong-willed, overconfident individuals who often appear in the midst of crises, and who will want you to follow them.

We must resist the seductiveness of self-appointed “leaders”.  This is my warning to you.

Such people will surely appear, claiming to love liberty when in fact they are its greatest enemies.  Please be prepared to maintain your independence.

The human spirit knows no bounds.  Yet, the conflict between freedom and the boundaries of justice is as harsh as it is inevitable.  This is a fact of life that defines the human condition.

Given the extraordinary human capacity for perception and imagination, we often stretch the limits with painful consequences.

Worse, it can be easy to imagine ourselves possessed of unique wisdom or exceptional qualities.  The past has been punctuated with great delusions.

So it is that we must understand purpose in the finite limits of being, and find responsible means for putting it to work.

Finiteness is a structural characteristic of the universe.  All physical form is defined by limits, as it must be to serve its’ function.

This is the nature of physical reality and the functional ground of human freedom.  The social order in a civilized society serves a similar purpose.  These are givens.

It is the inherent dependability of this truth 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 structural limits, (which include our own moral values), we would have no capacity to direct our energy and intelligence, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

For the individual, the ability to exercise discipline defeats the limitations imposed by nature and society.

The discipline to leverage our inspiration against the constraints we encounter provides the power to actualize our freedom and transcend the material difficulties in our lives.

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

Discipline and limitation are, indeed, the ground of freedom.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about July 15.

Several additional chapters from the forthcoming book have been added (in draft) at the top of the homepage.

Responsibility and the Future

The civil unrest we are currently experiencing in the United States has exploded into a multi-layered complexity of ongoing crises.  Like the deterioration of social order in America, the present outburst has deep historic roots.  As new crises continue to proliferate, this blog will remain focused on the challenges of social disruption and interpersonal alienation.

We will seek effective solutions for making safety and problem-solving possible despite our many differences.  And, we will return again and again to fundamentals.

When we hear a contentious and quarrelsome tone in the disputes that dominate today, how do we respond?  Does unproductive hostility frustrate us?  Do we yearn for a more practical attitude toward problem-solving?

The clash of differing opinions is a valuable time-honored American tradition.  But no one responds well to verbal abuse, much less physical violence.

Expressing our views is important.  Indeed, it is necessary for a healthy society.   But nothing will subvert ones’ purpose more quickly than a combative attitude that alienates the very people we wish to influence – or need to work with.

Imagine for a moment that we had the good fortune to live in a community where local safety and practical problem-solving is given relative priority over philosophical differences.

In my most recent post (May 18), I challenged readers to consider how far we are willing to go to create safe, positive and productive conditions in our communities.

Do we have the vision, courage, and fortitude, I asked, to commit ourselves to principled means and to engage responsibly in constructive action?

I am not asking what you think other people are willing to do.  I am asking what YOU will do.

Nothing will change while we wait for other people to accept responsibility for themselves.  Responsibility is personal and self-defining.

The most important things in our future – creating safe communities, ensuring food security, recovering from economic collapse, for example – depend on collaboration.

Most of us understand what responsibility means in our personal lives, whether or not we make it real.  And, most Americans know that freedom cannot exist without responsibility.

But what do I mean by ‘constructive action’?  This might sound unfamiliar, but it is hardly a new idea.

As regular readers know, this concept provides effective means for breaking through log-jams of discord.

Constructive action is geared for problem-solving – allowing a sufficient level of cooperation to get the work done, however limited this might be.

Constructive action is exercised with dignity and respect.  It refuses to hurt or injure – whether by impatience, dishonesty, hatred, or wishing ill of anybody.

Please do not imagine this to be simply a state of harmlessness.  On the contrary, constructive action is the foundation for coherent strength.

It is the first principle upon which all other principles, values, and purposes depend.

It makes problem-solving possible despite inevitable conflict.

The moral integrity of the civil society we wish for will depend on the spirit of respect and trustworthiness that characterizes constructive action.

The two are inseparable as means and ends.

Constructive action is the means.  A future grounded in moral integrity is the end.

Political thinking has always considered means to be either an abstraction of tactics or simply the inherent nature of social and political machinery.  In both cases means are considered only in their service to the goals of political interests.

Here we have a very different understanding of means, replacing end-serving goals with an end-creating purpose.

Such an approach is necessary if we wish to apply traditional American values effectively to rapidly changing circumstances.

This in no way denies the validity of partisan political views.  Instead it provides a rational forum for debate, opening hearts and minds to different ways of thinking.

Influencing others can only happen where there are ears to hear.

And, a free and prosperous future can only be sought by capitalizing on our differences in experience, knowledge, skills, and perspective.

The better our working relationships with friends and neighbors, the greater the opportunity to attract, inspire, and learn.

We can choose to learn the skills and tactics that make collaboration possible – or we can walk away forever from the safety and integrity of a future we can trust.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about June 16.

Links to several additional chapters from the coming book have been added (in draft) at the top of the homepage.

Coming to Account

Never have such extreme constraints been imposed on us – economic, emotional, and physically threatening.  The necessity to understand the current threat, to protect ourselves and to secure household and family, has required every bit of energy and attention.

Now, however, the reality of isolation is beginning to sink in.

Imagination easily wanders through feelings of helplessness and, perhaps, to thoughts of paranoia.  We are human beings, having a natural tendency to look for fault somewhere – the possibility of malevolence or the likelihood of mistakes and poor judgment – and to lay blame.

As people attempting to protect our families and to survive, such stray thoughts get us nowhere.  However, the opportunity to reflect deeply on our lives, both personal and societal, may be opening.  This is rare for many of us.

We are aware that things have not been right in America (and the world) for quite some time.

We have little opportunity as citizens to influence economic or political outcomes, yet we have significant control over how we manage our lives.

How have we been doing?

We value our own intelligence and self-respect.  So, given the opportunity to think, assess and evaluate — to reflect on what is missing in our lives or what we would like to do better – what ideas or principles might be helpful?

What ways of thinking might help at such an extraordinary time as this?

One of the principles available to us, and which comes with ancient roots in the Judeo-Christian heritage of the western world, is the idea that we each exist for a purpose – which presents itself in the opportunities we have to make a positive difference in the world, each in our own way.

Perhaps most importantly, this idea comes with recognition that our world is fragmented and in disarray.

The smallest acts of compassion and service, however insignificant they might seem, are the effective means for putting the world back together.

There is nothing new about this understanding.  All the world religions focus on healing and uniting the fragmentation of societies – on fostering fellowship within social and cultural diversity.

Why do so many adherents of the various religions fail to see this and understand?  Surely this is due, at least in part, to the habit of accepting only what feels comfortable, what is selfish and easy.  We reject the rest.

It has actually been in the direct response to catastrophe in religious history that the importance of individual deeds has come to be recognized as a fundamental principle.

It is in the immediacy of selfless interactions that we transform negative energy into a force that heals and restores the damage we experience in a battered world.

The smallest actions make a difference.

We do not need to be religious to do good or to understand moral responsibility.  To be moral is to do what is right or necessary, out of our own self-respect and not because somebody tells us we should.

Each of us is quite capable of rising up from our own difficulties and selfish preoccupations to reach out to others in straightforward ways.

In experiencing the effectiveness of selfless actions, we make a critical discovery – that we can look upon the disasters around us without concluding that America is irreparable or that human beings are irredeemable.

How important this is for the country, for our communities, and for the well-being of our own spirits!

A future that embodies the essential principles of the American Republic will depend upon citizen initiative that demonstrates the moral responsibility, trustworthiness and caring we are all capable of.

Let this become an everyday, habitual way of life: Allow it to color the character of your local community.  And watch what happens.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about April 22.

Note to new readers: A project description, introduction to the coming book, and several chapters in draft can be found linked at the top of this homepage.

A Confluence of Crises

Americans face a formidable array of current and emerging crises. I believe this to be a defining moment that requires us to dig deep into the American traditions of loyalty and overriding unity. The only alternative is to accept disaster and disintegration.

The challenges ahead will be diverse, profound, and mutually reinforcing.  Some will appear suddenly, others gradually, but all will ultimately converge as they impact our lives in the coming years.

Most Americans are currently focused on the politicized concerns that attract media coverage. Attention is easily diverted from the most important problems, including degraded economic conditions and growing civil disorder.

Blame is directed at politicians, while the real causes behind deteriorating conditions are ignored or avoided – the pervading loss of ethical responsibility and trustworthiness, the failure of economic foresight, and the profound menace of impenetrable complexity.

Yet, it is just such underlying conditions that most threaten our future security and well-being.

I offered a short list of emerging dangers and dilemmas in the last blog post.  These threaten a wide range of consequences: social and economic, moral and material.

Whatever the details of a confluence of crises, emerging complexity appears to be most dangerous.  The nature of extreme complexity is impossible to comprehend.  It is silent, multidimensional and unpredictable.

Of particular concern, we have never before been subject to the interactive complexity of digital systems.  This is new to the human experience.

The fabric of civil and economic order is shaken when stability fails.  Systems and structures can come unraveled in a self-perpetuating chain reaction.

Given the interrelated dynamics of social, economic, and political pressures pushed to extremes, we are stumbling into a systemic crisis capable of triggering a cascading collapse.

We must be prepared to respond rationally, without panic and with our principles intact.

The integrity of the whole is a dynamic reality, physical, mental, and spiritual.  And here is the crux of the matter.  Behind the material problems there is a rarely perceived but underlying crisis:  It is about the way we see and the way we think.

This is a crisis of a different kind, and it is the reason why the present turning point is so significant.  I speak here of the loss of moral compass, the need for which is critical in the management of complex crises.

The absence of moral responsibility and personal accountability is of devastating consequence.

The foundations of civil order depend on rational problem-solving.  Yet, contrary to the popular imagination, the efficacy of reason is neutralized in a moral vacuum.

This is the most dangerous challenge before us because it limits our ability to respond effectively to every other crisis.

Indeed, it undermines the integral order of civilization.

Whatever our particular religious tradition or philosophical grounding, the difficult years ahead will demand a steadfast commitment to the highest ethical standards, to consistent moral responsibility, and a patient determination to cooperate with others.

Our ability to engage constructively with our neighbors is essential.  While there is much we will not agree on, we must learn to work together, to listen respectfully, and to translate our differences into communication that allows cooperative problem-solving.

A special kind of leadership is needed.  We must encourage one another to believe in ourselves, to be patient, trustworthy, dependable, and steadfast.

Such leaders will be ordinary Americans like yourselves, working to meet local needs and resolve local problems – regardless of our differences.

Dangers will persist.  As Americans pass through a chaotic transition, some will turn to the rigidities of inflexible ideology or violent rhetoric.

Make no mistake!  Extremist demagoguery can subvert the future of the United States as a constitutional republic.  The wreckage of sedition, whatever its sources, will threaten everything we believe in.

Leadership that is true to its American roots will stand firmly against such mental weakening.

The future depends on ordinary citizens like yourself, dear reader.   Your leadership must be quiet, compassionate, steadfast.

It is you who will carry America through the storm and out the other side.

Tom

Note to readers:  Please look for the next post on or about November 12.  A project description, an introduction to the forthcoming book, and several chapter drafts are linked at the top of this page.

From Courage to Responsibility

Without neighbors we can depend on, how will we find safety for our families and strength to build the future?  Tell me, please, in what place other than our local communities do we have the freedom and opportunity, amid deepening turbulence, to forge dependable relationships and to influence our destiny as a nation?

I never said it would be easy.  Responsibility never is.  We face an extraordinary turning point, an oncoming confluence of crises that will challenge Americans to rise to a new level.

Do we imagine that a superhero will rescue us?  Or will we pick ourselves up, reach out to our neighbors, and do what needs to be done?  This is an uncompromising question.  Not to answer it, or to defer commitment, is in fact to answer it.

Failure to rise to necessity is to accept defeat.

Whatever one’s personality, political philosophy or religious belief, we have a choice to make.  Either we retreat into ourselves, accepting the world as beyond our control, or we step forward to engage hardship and purpose with constructive intent.

This is a very personal choice, but at a time of existential crisis for America it takes on great significance – for ourselves, for the nation and for the world.

The United States has served as a model of governance and an engine of creative vitality that is unparalleled in human history.  The American idea has been a beacon of hope for people everywhere.  There has never been anything else like it.

And, now the world is watching.

To hesitate would be to act as victims rather than as Americans.  It would be to choose loss over promise, helplessness over responsibility.  We may be temporarily intimidated by difficult circumstances.  But we must never give in, and never lose sight of the dawn of a new day that even now lightens the horizon.

Without the personal courage to begin anew, we will join the slide into turmoil.

It is true that strengthening our communities will not protect us from uncertainty.  However, what it can do, and will do if we are determined, is to open the door to practical potential — dependable neighbors, mutual assistance, food security, and economic renewal on a human scale.

It positions us to best keep our balance mentally and spiritually.  And, it keeps the future alive.

Working with people is probably the most challenging thing in life.  Choosing to work together requires perseverance and forbearance – a readiness to exercise tolerance, patience, self-control.

There will always be difficult people to test us.

Our job is not to be heroes or caretakers or managers, although these roles may call on us at times.  Our job is to win over hearts and minds to the cause of responsibility, safety, mutual respect.  Only then will it be possible for fear to give way to sincere listening, anxiety to understanding.

No one is asking that you change your views.  Our lessons, (and those we need to teach), are those of democratic governance as well as human decency: Patience, problem-solving, teamwork and collaboration.

We can only advance one step at a time and will often seem painfully slow.

Making a commitment to stay positive requires resolve.  Despite this, to focus on productive activity and to build dependable relationships will make a very big difference.

The negativity that imposes on us every day may seem powerful, but it can only exist in the absence of constructive action, and only has the energy we allow it.  When we set out on a practical path and offer encouragement to others with a friendly spirit, we become as a light that pushes back the darkness.

If we meet with overwhelming negativity, it may be wise to take our energy elsewhere.  But, we must never allow our vision to dim or our compassion to be compromised.

Darkness can always be countered with light.  Darkness is the absence of light and has no substance of its own.

Tom

Please watch for the next post on or about August 22.

A note to new readers:  Blog entries adapted from the forthcoming book are posted on alternating weeks at both this, the main blog site, and on a Facebook page.  To receive alerts by email you may click “Follow” on this page.