Thursday, August 30, 2012

Why Americans should be hopeful, and what you can do if you’re not.

I am hopeful. But should I be? Am I stupid, not watching what’s going on? How can I maintain such a posture in our present circumstances?

Aside from the obvious blessing of life itself and the dearness of my loved ones, I obtain perspective from two places: history and my local community.

One of the most enjoyable and useful aspects of studying historical scholarship is the experience, unique to humans, of mentally imaging the time, place and personal circumstances of a subject and persons we cannot see or touch. It seems far away, but still familiar because persons are there. But as one of my college history professors, Gerald Leonard once said, “The difficulty with History is that we are studying something that does not exist.” This simple, but profound observation leads us to the awareness that our grasp of what we understand as “history” is a combination of raw recorded data, the backward observation of postulated causes and effects and more importantly, our reaction to it all, both intellectually and emotionally. While emotion seems an errant factor that needs to be controlled for, in reality, it is ever-present and forces us to make value judgments and to appreciate what humans-past have experienced and what life might have really been like in another time. And we cannot escape our own emotions.

How can history make us hopeful, given our present economic and political circumstances? With a little attention, we can clearly chart progress. One simple exercise I use is imagining what it would be like to have been born at the turn of the last century and mustered into one of those WWI regiments serving in the trenches of Verdun or the Battle of the Somme, most likely facing grim extinction or at best, surviving while witnessing hideous death and suffering in every direction. Or what it must have been like to have lived as a young Ashkenazi boy in the Warsaw Ghetto of the 1930’s and what came later, or more remotely, what it might have been like to be a citizen of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War, where devastation wrought by the Romans was utter and complete, thereby ending a civilization.

OK, not enough? We can also take measure of our own nation and its history, to see that despite the dark pallor of our economic system and the sometimes-wicked polarization of our politics, we have made incredible, measurable progress. Since my birth alone we have witnessed the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the ending of Jim Crow, the transformation of music worldwide by Rock and Roll, the complete mapping of the Human Genome and the development of Super Conducting Magnetic Technology, which confirmed the existence of quarks, verifying the theoretical physics models and allowing scientists to peer into the origins of physical nature. This same technology later made its way into use in the Magnetic Resonance Imager. Many of us know loved ones whose lives were saved because of this technology, all right here, in the US of A. Examples abound.

Still not enough?

One of the outstanding but obvious characteristics of the Television and Internet age is that we have access to more information than ever dreamed possible coming at us at overwhelming speed. The prerequisite for corporate profits and market share (or mind-share as some call it) means that the pace will quicken, not slow down. The viewing of this article takes time as does surfing the Net, using Social Media and scouring news and cultural sites to “keep up.” For many of us, that time has become inordinate in comparison to time spent with others, engaged in real, sensory human experience. For most, when working long days or looking for work, supporting self and perhaps family, paying bills, trying to stay informed, we can become a slave to this easy outlet that doesn’t require additional expense, travel or inconvenience. It also doesn’t require direct, human engagement.

A part of my own experience that has taught me how to grin at life optimistically and to live, work and productively engage with others who do not share my political or religious views, my taste in music or art, sports teams, food - you name it – has been doing community-based work on a local level. The postmodern injunction “think globally, act locally” is so pure and true that we can easily dismiss it as a foggy tree-hugger vagary. In reality, in your community right now, there are underfed children and homeless people. Even if you live in the suburbs, homeless people are there in the uncounted legions of “couch surfers” as the outreach organizations often call them. Food pantries often struggle for food supplies, but more often for good, reliable, volunteer help. Art and cultural organizations, local theater, small museums, often rely on volunteer help to make them work. These organizations allow community to live – really live.

One of the most life affirming experiences for me has been volunteering as a board member, but also a volunteer for homeless services and food programs in the poorer parts of my community. This is one area of need, but there are many others in most communities. In doing this work, I have collaborated with Catholics, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics, Buddhists, Unitarians, rock-rib, conservative Republicans, Libertarians, Green Party members, Left Radicals, traditional Democrats, Dissenters and others to work toward a common goal in the service of a common good. One of my collaborators and close friends, Frank, is very politically conservative and never votes for the same folks I do. In a political discussion, we would disagree on most topics. However, this is NEVER an issue and I love him dearly and I know the feeling is mutual. He himself has a son with Downs Syndrome to whom he is devoted and is one of the most charitable, compassionate individuals walking the planet. Our relationship is enhanced and deeply humanized by our collaborative, passionate service and our deeper understanding of each others personal lives and struggles.

Another friend, Jim, working in the same trenches, could be categorized as so far radical left as to be “out there” by conventional standards. He is anything, but out there. A father of three, he has allowed himself, despite a superior intellectual capacity and advanced education, to work for low wages as he and his spiritual partner and wife, Cathy, raise a bright and happy family, while continuing to serve the poor and homeless. He is fully engaged and maintains a clear-eyed view of a reality that most of us don’t know exists in the poorest communities of our nation. His work often occurs with people from faith communities, but also with those not so inclined, both “liberal” and “conservative.” The work is carried on and the community served is better as a result.
Many of our problems are intractable, but human compassion and dedication can be a death-defying force when people actively engage in common cause that crosses mythical, establishment boundaries. We see past what is superficial and find that diversity of experience and worldviews are not barriers, but rather opportunities to apprehend each others humanity. Push your self beyond your mythical boundaries and I promise, you will find hope.

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh