“Few are guilty but all are responsible,” the great religious scholar and leader Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the moral state of a people. As a people, we Americans are at a turning point in our history. The core issue challenging us is alienation. Alienation is at the root of decades of increasing violence and misogyny. It is at the root of destruction for destruction’s sake in our politics, too many newscasts, and internet vitriol. And it is at the root of how we have failed to come together to respond effectively to the pandemic, to gun violence, and to climate change. Out of my deep concern and fear, this is the fifth of six posts which are passages from chapters 12 and 13 in my book The Midnight Hour which I believe can help us reclaim responsibility for the spirit of our country.
Taking Responsibility for Recapturing Our Challenge for a New Normal
There are four powerful temptations that we must guard against in these fragmented and chaotic times. The first of these is helplessness, the feeling that there is little that I as one person can do against the power, misery, injustice, and violence around me. We are, in fact, able to do something. One committed person can always make a difference. Some of us may cause big changes. Most of us can change a small portion of events. In the totality of all our acts we create the history of our era.
I cannot help but think of all those soldiers during our revolution during the freezing winter at Valley Forge dealing with poor clothing, near starvation, tattered tents and primitive huts for housing, and rampant influenza. At home their wives struggled with taking care of children, elders, farms, shops, and so on. These were mostly uneducated folks, but they understood the needs of the human heart for liberty, equality, and opportunity. They endured. They crossed the freezing Delaware River with George Washington to win a rare victory. They endured for six-and-a-half years, losing almost every battle, until they finally won the war and stood down the army of Lord Cornwallis in a final defeat. This is our heritage. This heritage isn’t dead—it tends to drop out of sight until we have a tragedy. I remember with tears in my heart the many police and firefighters who went into the towers on 9/11 knowing they would probably never come out. They proved that deep down our spirit still has the potential to be unconquerable. These men and women remind us of what is best in us. Futility is not an option because every act can create a ripple of hope and change.
The second temptation is practicality. Practicality, expediency, has become far too popular in our times. The idea that we must be practical limits our vision and our possibilities and separates us from the foundational strength of our nation—the strength to rise above ourselves to meet the challenges of our reality and our destiny, to remember that our rights are diminished when the rights of anyone around us are threatened. Theodore Roosevelt taught us by word and deed that only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly. The moral aims and values supported by our visions of liberty, equality, and opportunity for every one of us are not incompatible with the economic possibilities for our society. Capitalism or efficiency without the heart of our value system will lead us to disaster.
The third temptation we have to face is fear. In fact, I am damn sick and tired of having our media and too many of our politicians throwing fear at me all the time. We are the strongest country in the world militarily and economically. I am also sick and tired of the fear we live in due to the ruthlessness of our job markets, our lack of safety nets, and our fear of absurd health-care costs. It is time for us to rediscover the moral courage it takes to reclaim the heart of our democracy. Real freedom and a real sense of personal value in our culture will do a lot to free us from many basic fears. But we have to find the courage our forebears found to start a revolution. Courage is the one essential quality needed to change the world and to gain a life of one’s own.
The fourth temptation we face is staying in our comfort zones and following the temptations of easy, familiar paths, whether they are being dependent on public help or following personal ambitions. We can sleepwalk through life, trying to shut out the unpleasantness, and not take self-responsibility for the danger, chaos, and uncertainty in our times. We are the ones who need to step out of our comfort zones and reclaim the heart of our democracy, and the soul of our heritage. We need to be tough enough to follow the example of perseverance shown by the members of our revolution to change our government on the national level, the state level, the county level, and the city level—no matter if it takes six-and-a-half years as our original revolution did. I must also ask if we are tough enough to look in the mirror and say, as the old comic strip character Pogo did, that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Or I might say it another way: “Do I value myself, my country, and the future I want to see for my children, grandchildren, and the rest of us enough to become fully engaged? Would it also help if I stopped underestimating myself, my power to be engaged, and my potential strength as a citizen?” Sure.
Go deeper into this and related topics in The Midnight Hour: A Jungian Perspective on America’s Current Pivotal Moment.
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