At the retirement center, a woman approached me to compliment a blog I had written. My reply was to shrug and say the words hadn’t amounted to much. Later, I recanted, realizing my false humility had made light of her opinion.
To be honest, I’d worked hard on that blog. Why pretend otherwise? And why stifle a conversation that could have been enlightening?
I know the answer. I was striving to make an impression.
What distinguishes humans from pebbles on the beach is our self-awareness. Mindfulness may never answer the question, “Why am I here,” but it builds better societies. When we understand our motivations and those of others, we allow ourselves to grow wiser and more tolerant.
Narrow thinking leads to negative outcomes, like Hostile architecture. Slanted bus stops to discourage the homeless from taking a nap, or spikes set along a thoroughfare built for the same purpose may deter vagrants, but they are also impediments for people using walkers or wheelchairs and for the visually impaired. Shelters built for the homeless might be a better use of taxpayer dollars.
Tyrants who focus on themselves are likewise vulnerable to narrow objectives. As former U. S. Secretary of State Robert Gates observed of Vladimir Putin, the Russian President so feared a democratic, modern, and prosperous Ukraine as an alternative model for Russians next door, [ ] he started a war with his neighbor. (“The Dysfunctional Superpower,” by Robert M. Gates, Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2023, pg. 37.) Unable to assess his limitations, Putin now finds himself mired in a long and costly war.
Unfortunately, some members of the United States Congress suffer the same myopia. Rather than compromise on the national budget, they force the government to survive on a series of continuing resolutions– a strategy that endangers the country’s creditworthiness and safety. China’s military budget is ballooning while continuing resolutions that hold government agencies to the previous year’s budget deprive our Defense Department of the money to innovate. (Ibid, pg 39.)
Common sense would tell us war is a poor substitute for peace. Even victors are forced to live in fear of those they have conquered. Little wonder that power struggles seldom take us beyond the present. Hammas and Israelis slaughter one another for a strip of land. They fail to see the planet is already on fire. Twice in recent days, the earth’s temperature has crossed a threshold scientists warn will lead to catastrophic and irreversible impacts for homo sapiens. If all the soldiers in all the skirmishes that scar the planet manage to survive, their reward will be to witness the extermination of mankind.
If we are honest, the faults of our leaders reflect our own. As a species, we prefer short-term solutions to long-term gains. That’s why would-be leaders talk to us about “kitchen table” issues. They pander to our self-interests rather than remind us of our duty as citizens.
Yet what has the price of gasoline to do with democracy? Conflating one with the other reduces government to its lowest denominator, as if building a society dedicated to values like justice, liberty, and fraternity were secondary. A government based upon what we can get rather than what we can share makes no demands upon us. All we require are simple answers and tyrants specialize in those.
These Pied Pipers would have us focus on them, encouraging us to believe the fate of the country rests upon their shoulders. And some among us do believe. One woman called former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson a messenger from God. (“Outfoxed,” by Brian Stelter, Vanity Fair, Dec/Jan 2023/4, pg. 74.)
Private truths like hers are impervious to facts. Too many in that frame of mind can form a cancer in the body politic. Left unchecked, we may one day wake to find ourselves in a country no longer united as “we the people,” but one divided between “them and us.”
The cure for chaos begins at the cellular level. Each of us has a duty to our democracy. Without that commitment, no government of the people, by the people, and for the people will endure. Let us remember the words of John F. Kennedy at his first inauguration. … ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. (inaugural address, 1961.)”