The Individual In Society


Whether our ancestors came to this continent by choice or in slavery, or were forcibly separated from their indigenous American roots, all of us are estranged from the lands and lives of our forebears.  Cut off from the cultural foundations that provided previous generations with the basis for personal identity and social stability, our values adapted to broader horizons and unbridled possibilities.

For some the escape from oppression or deprivation took great determination and willpower.  With a strength rooted in the independence of the survivor, Americans reconstructed human society on the basis of association, reciprocity, and principle: freedom of thought, personal responsibility, and a new sense of belonging.

Early on our communities were formed on the basis of cultural commonalities.  But our naturally inquisitive nature and the inclination to range far and wide across the North American continent took us away from physical roots and led to a society characterized by mobility, homogeneity, and economies of scale.

The United States changed dramatically over time, and the rate of change has increased exponentially.  Since World War Two the advances in technology, the complexity of the financial systems, and the growth of government have escalated with a swiftness that has been beyond our capacity to fully grasp.

First railways, and then a proliferation of highways, industrial enterprises, and shopping malls facilitated unrestrained pursuit of economic productivity and material comfort.  Cheap energy made many things possible.  Big always seemed to be better; at least it was more profitable for the wealthy.

Somehow we lost any sense of proportion or real purpose.  A society once anchored by small businesses and community cohesion soon fell apart, morphing into urban sprawl, broken families, and lost dreams.

Unfortunately, and paradoxically, the resulting loss of community and social coherence has led to diminishing independence and self-sufficiency among ordinary Americans.  Many of us have a haunting awareness of this loss of social integrity.  Others have responded more inchoately and angrily, with less comprehension of the historical context or economic forces that contribute to a general sense of unease.

The vibrant community-based civil society described in Chapter Five, which flourished during the first century following independence, had provided a sense of identity and belonging.  The loss of community, and with it the degradation of family coherence, was of profound significance.  Without the mediating influence of extended families, civic associations, craft guilds and labor organizations, all of which had offered identity and stability to the individual, Americans sought community engagement where they could find it – in corporate America and in the institutions and burgeoning functions of government.

The ascent of individualist consciousness had proceeded in European culture concurrently with the gradual loss of community and the diminishment of civil society that gives life to communities.  In the United States this trend was halted briefly by the flowering of civil society described by Tocqueville in glowing terms.

But, this resurgence was lost in a sudden and dramatic turn during and after the First World War.  The new laws and regulations put in place to ensure uncompromised national support for the war effort gave President Woodrow Wilson virtually total power.  Wilson intended a quick return to normal three years later, but the damage was done.  Social cohesion was severely weakened.  The social consciousness of the American people and the place of the federal government in the American mind were forever changed.

If Americans are to recover the place of genuine community in our lives, the current dynamics involving the individual and the state will have to be addressed.  Recognition of the role of community as the foundation of a stable society will be necessary, and an active engagement in civic affairs that serves social well-being without limiting individual capacity for self-fulfillment.  If we are to recover a civilized order, a truly American civil society must be recreated and cultivated.

This challenge must not be evaded or ignored.  And, it is fundamental to the theme of this book.

We have accepted our dependence on centralized government and dominant corporate power to manage our lives for us.  Indeed, we are rarely conscious of their pervasive influence.  This has been the norm we have lived with for the past 100 years.

Corporate America has organized itself and our lives in a manner that best suits commercial efficiencies and profit-making.  Did we expect anything different?

We are only dimly aware of the tenuous commercial supply chains stretching thousands of miles across the continent for the benefit of profitable efficiencies.  This has led to a significant material vulnerability to structural crises.  Supermarket inventories are kept at a minimum to reduce carrying costs.  Aging infrastructure is allowed to remain as it is, as long as it appears functional.

Jobs disappeared overseas over a period of several decades as an experienced workforce was replaced with less expensive and more vulnerable people who lived far away.  This was not the doing of any politician or political party.  It was accepted as natural and inevitable for successful commerce.

Massive debts were accumulated, public, corporate, private, based upon the apparent financial conditions of the day, with little understanding of the ultimate consequences that come with the inevitability of economic cycles.  It is always assumed that when times are good, the same conditions will prevail unhindered forever.  Debt can be piled on with negligible risk.  Most significantly, a global monetary system based solely on the United States dollar since 1971 was forced on the rest of the world, allowing America to accumulate debt far beyond our ability ever to repay.

Consequently, at this writing the global banking system hangs by a thread.

This is not the place to explain the current economic vulnerability of the United States or the world.  Suffice it to say that nothing has been fixed since the previous financial crises took place, and the capacity of governments to mount another rescue are now severely curtailed.

Given the extraordinary social and economic stresses we are now experiencing, these are no small matters.  We have been relatively unaware of the forces of change that have been building over decades, instead blaming current politicians for our current pain.  Accepting our lives as they are, with little awareness of the past or our own assumptions, we have expected that every day will be like the last.

The United States is by far the most indebted nation in the history of the world.  Yet, we have remained largely oblivious to the loss of the American character and sense of “exceptionalism” that once gave us pride.  More profoundly, I believe, we have ignored the gradual loss of spirit that should normally motivate a healthy society.

Where does this leave us as individuals?  As Americans we tend to resist anything that might impose on our personal independence.  We have a well-developed respect for the individual and a society that values the freedoms protected by our Constitution and Bill of Rights.  But, we sometimes fail to respect, or even to recognize, the integrity and prevailing ethos of the civil order we depend on, and which the Constitution made possible.

We find ourselves now at a turning point where both the mistakes and the ideals that brought us here are partially veiled from memory.  The need for recasting the American identity based on genuine values has become painfully clear.

I submit that the values we associate with the American ideal, (as we would like to think of it), remain as valid today as they ever have.  Yet, we find ourselves with almost no concept of community, no sense of meaningful roots or a secure basis for envisioning a future we can respect and believe in.

Ideally, the energy of inspired and passionate citizens would provide the actualizing force in a vibrant society.  However, without the backbone of moral leadership, embodied in a political economy that understands local needs and respects local wisdom and knowledge, we cannot expect that reason and order might prevail.

Furthermore, the impact of undisciplined passions on a society in disarray can lead to catastrophic consequences.

This leaves Americans with a formidable task.  Without the grounding of commitment and civility that is possible in coherent, self-respecting communities, how are we to engage with others, uprooted and disorganized in the wasteland of a broken society, to build trustworthy relationships, restore a dependable civil order, and secure the welfare of our children and grandchildren?

I do not address this question to the nation in general, in all its pain and confusion.  Rather, I address my readers directly, as thinking, caring, self-respecting individuals:  Are we prepared to pick ourselves up and turn the corner?

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.


Americans will have to seek determinedly for stability if we are to get it back.  We cannot afford to lose our nerve before the challenges of divisive animosities.  If we wish to build a world where prosperity is possible, where our children can be safe and personal freedoms are respected, it will be necessary first to create a stable environment for addressing problems, managing conflict, and building effective institutions.

I am convinced that the endeavor to reaffirm our shared values and rebuild our strength as a nation will best be met in stable, self-possessed, forward-looking communities.

The community-centered strategy introduced in this book represents a decisive departure from the recent past.  It is inspired in part by the important role of community during the nation’s first century, but there are important differences.

The primary differences come with both the inclusive diversity that we seek to engage and the intentionality with which we set goals.  In the American past most communities included people with similar cultural roots and ethnicities.  But, in little more than a generation American communities have been rearranged radically by shifting demographics and a deteriorating economy.

While diversity might appear problematic at first, it will ultimately prove beneficial.  In the challenging days ahead local communities will, as a practical matter, depend on a diversity of experience, knowledge, and skills to meet a multitude of unprecedented problems and unmet basic needs.

In Chapter Three we saw how our effectiveness at problem-solving increases quite substantially with diversity.  The day may come, as we face worsening conditions, when we will be dependent on a diversity of practical experience and resourceful talent among our neighbors.  Skills and creative intelligence come in all forms, colors, and ethnicities.

However, given the divisive antagonisms and severe negativity that predominates among Americans at this writing, the reader will quite reasonably question how a serious reconciliation can be brought about, much less an ability to cooperate in serious problem-solving.

The remaining chapters of this book are devoted to addressing this concern.  I will present a reasoned argument supporting the necessity for a community-based solution.  And, I will follow this with practical guidance for those with the courage and fortitude to embrace the task.

There are pragmatic reasons why community can bring us through the narrow and dangerous place in the road ahead, and why there may not be a viable alternative.  But, the challenge is formidable.

Human beings are resistant to rethinking cherished assumptions.  This is a very big problem.

Emerson famously said: “People only see what they are prepared to see.”  And, more recently, Stephen R. Covey put it similarly: “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are ─ or, as we are conditioned to see it.”

While the consequences of this conditioning are natural, they effectively block constructive problem-solving.  And, in today’s circumstances our ability to solve problems is itself the critical problem.

Albert Einstein addressed this in ironic terms:  “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

The reasonable person shudders at the immensity of the task.  But, there are answers.  And, our understanding of the way that will lead us into the answers is of critical importance.

My argument begins with a subtle principle that is more direct than first appears.  I believe it is stated most concisely by the Christian theologian Henri J.M. Nouwen“You don’t think your way into a new kind of living,” he wrote. “You live your way into a new kind of thinking.”

A genuine commitment to making community work makes this possible.

We can only live our way “into a new kind of thinking” by rising above our differences to engage with our neighbors in resolving practical problems and addressing local needs.  Such relationships, perhaps forced upon us by necessity, provide the requisite conditions for gaining the skills that must be learned before we can embark on reimagining a common thoroughly American vision for the future.

To consolidate and strengthen our local communities is of immense importance for quite practical reasons.  The outcome, however, will be to engage in processes that will inform our thinking in a practical and non-threatening manner.  This will influence our perspectives as individuals, but it need not threaten our values or the principles we hold dear.

Guidance has been given us in the form of principle by our religious traditions or passed on to us by parents or grandparents, but we are the ones who must put our values into practice.  And it is in the practice of living and working with others that values are translated into action.

Without action we live in theory and imagination.

Will Rogers said: “People’s minds are changed through observation and not through argument.”  Benjamin Franklin, who had a way of getting straight to the point, put it this way: “Tell me and I forget.  Teach me and I remember.  Involve me and I learn.”

This is a principle that must be understood and adapted to our lives as we join one another to build trust and resolve practical necessities.  It will be in the process of being and doing that we will find common ground.  And, we will arrive there more quickly and with less angst than we expect; because necessity will bring us there.

New perspectives will always be personal.  Learning may surprise us, but our response will always be under our own control.  It will not happen because someone tells us we must change.  It will happen when we live our challenges and our questions with friends and neighbors who we depend upon for safety and relative comfort.

Local community is the one place in which we can engage with one another directly and personally while addressing common needs.  Rebuilding social order and healing damaged trust will require that we come to an entirely new understanding with each other.

I believe the lessons required for the healing and effective management of the nation must first be learned and internalized in community.  Responsibility, trustworthiness, dependability must be learned in direct engagement with real people confronting real problems.

Our challenge lies in stepping aside from our assumptions, and from the “insistent self” that cripples our capacity to listen and understand.

Community is the seat of civilization, made genuine because it is personal.  It is in community that we can develop our best self, engaging with one another face-to-face, cementing trust, tending to needs, learning patience and responsibility.  The inherent challenges of this process will themselves contribute to our wisdom and maturity, both as individuals and as a nation.

Each of us must find strength and clarity in our own ethical principles and be prepared to stand firmly on the foundation of honesty, trustworthiness, and responsibility.  If we are to open ourselves to listening well, we need first to be comfortable with ourselves. Building trust with others requires sincerity before all else.

It is among friends and neighbors that we can forge the attitudes and build the confidence we need to envision the future and look forward from the disorder of the present.

In the coming years Americans will encounter intense pressures imposed by unexpected dangers and unprecedented tests.  Without a spirit of loyal solidarity we will place ourselves in great jeopardy.  The safety and security of our families will depend on trustworthy relationships with our neighbors, a strength built with a constructive and compassionate attitude.

Unlike our ancestors, we cannot isolate ourselves in like-minded groups. To leave anyone outside the fold is to plant the seeds of destruction. Both survival and ultimate success will depend on a unity of vision and, as I have said, the diversity of our experience, knowledge, and skills.  This will call for a quiet and visionary leadership that knows how to encourage, empower, and inspire.

We are challenged to build a social cohesion among our compatriots that has the strength to hold steady in the face of social violence, extremist rhetoric, and, most importantly, our susceptibility to fear in the face of danger.

A local community capable of keeping its’ balance while engaged in organizing needs and developing a shared vision for the future, will maintain an openness to new ideas while graciously resisting the overly forceful influences of opinionated individuals.  This will mean listening to one another respectfully and with a genuine interest in understanding.

Let me be clear.  Communities can go badly wrong when genuine consultation devolves into “group-think”, or when a group allows itself to be hijacked by extremist views or a domineering personality.  So it is that we depend upon strength in diversity.

When we face deep-seated fears, such as the potential loss of food security or the threat of physical violence, real or imagined, emotions can easily spiral out of control, interfering with clear thinking and solving complex problems.  Fear can cause us to retreat into exactly the kind of combative stance that engenders unnecessary conflict.

Such dangers are addressed directly in Chapter Ten: The Foundations for Security.

Understanding the challenges is not only essential as an immediately practical matter.  It will have a direct bearing on the outcome.  Communities that come under the domination of overbearing individuals or succumb to extremist ideological rhetoric will represent the antithesis of our purpose and become a direct threat to the American Idea.

The strength of the American people comes with diversity of experience and perspective.  And it depends upon our readiness to rise above our differences to build a vibrant, welcoming and free-spirited society.  This is the essence of our heritage, our humanity, and the source of the nation’s greatness.

Trust and responsibility don’t just appear by good fortune.  They are formed in the trials of necessity and hardship, and inspired by vision and purpose.  Like marriage, a commitment to community forces us to mature as adult people – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.  Perhaps this is why so many avoid participating fully.

There are, however, other reasons for pledging ourselves to local responsibility.  Beyond the boundaries of family, community is that place where immediate needs present themselves and are best resolved.  As government loses its capacity to manage, we will have no one to look to except ourselves.

Americans have abdicated personal responsibility for this aspect of civilized life for a long time, and we have done so at our peril.


Whatever our personality, philosophy or religious belief, the individual person has an unavoidable choice to make.  Either we retreat into ourselves, accepting what is given as beyond control, or we stand up as mature adults and patiently seek to engage with life in an intelligent and productive manner.

At a time of existential crisis for the United States, this choice takes on great importance not only for ourselves, but for the community around us and, arguably, for the world.  The American model has served as a beacon of hope for people everywhere, and the world is watching.

If we are to protect our families, organize the means for security among our neighbors, and recover the promise of this nation, we must engage with one another.  And we must do so with dignity.

To hesitate here is to react as victims rather than respond as citizens, to choose loss over promise, helplessness over responsibility.  We each possess the capacity to live with purpose.  The responsible, free-thinking person will sometimes struggle with the contradictions between freedom and necessity, or may temporarily be intimidated by extreme circumstances, but never gives in and never loses sight of the light on the horizon.

I do not suggest that this is easy to do.  It is not.  What I am saying is that we have no choice.  Either we rise above personal limitations and challenges or we will join an inexorable slide into chaos.  Standing firm as individuals in the context of community does not isolate us from uncertainty, but positions us to keep our balance, mentally and emotionally.

Choosing to take control of our destiny will require that we exercise tolerance, perseverance, and self-control.  We must learn to work together to resolve local problems despite our differences.  And, no, this will not be easy.

Working with other people is probably the most challenging part of life.  Seeking to communicate effectively, and finding the fortitude to be supportive despite the sorrows and frustrations we all have, will become a increasingly important.  And, there will always be difficult people to test our patience and creativity.

Our job is not to be heroes.  Progress will come one step at a time.  What will be imperative, however, is that we each step forward to give of ourselves with a positive attitude – come what may.

I long to accomplish a great and noble task,” wrote Helen Keller, “but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.

Making a commitment to stay positive can require considerable resolve.  But, holding to a vision that inspires us, staying focused on purpose, and building trustworthy relationships can make a very big difference.

The negativity we see around us may appear powerful, but in reality it can only exist in the absence of constructive action, and it only has the energy we grant it.  When we set out on a practical path, however limited our self-confidence, and offer encouragement to others with a radiant spirit, we become as a light in darkness.

If we are met with overbearing negativity, it may be wise to take our energy elsewhere.  But, never allow your vision to dim or your compassion to be compromised.

Darkness can always be countered with light.  Darkness is the absence of light and has no substance of its own.  The light of a small candle defies and defeats even the darkest night.