Visiting My Bookshelves

A friend of mine visits her books every New Year’s Day, removing each one from its shelf, dusting it, deciding whether it stays or goes, and puts it in the distribution pile or back on the shelf. Visiting my personal library is also a January habit of mine, but I have experimented with several different styles of organizing the eight bookshelves in my townhouse (one in the office, two in the bedroom, two in the living room and three in the guest room).  The office bookshelf contains books I am likely to refer to in my writing—speeches, articles, books, blogs. The content of that bookshelf is about half stable and half varying with whatever project I am currently pursuing.

The rest are somewhat organized by subject areas (religion, economics, ethics, history, biography, politics/government, reference, fiction…) but the organization tends to break down over the course of a year with additions, loans in both directions, and recycling.  With bookshelves scattered throughout the house (although nothing like the book-trove of the Carl Sandburg house in North Carolina!), this act of loving care for my books involves a lot of movement from one room to another. It also generated a growing pile on the dining room table to take to the local library, which will keep some and put others in their monthly book sale.

I made a couple of changes in the routine this year.  One was to relegate to the bottom shelves those books I intend to keep but am unlikely to revisit.  These include textbooks from my teaching career, textbooks from seminary, and books I wrote myself. Sorry, guys, love you all and am keeping you, but don’t expect to be consulted or reread any time soon.

The second and most important change was to dedicate a shelf to books I have not yet read but intend to read, as well as a selection of the ones that I think are worth re-reading. That turned out to be the most enjoyable part of this year’s library project.  I looked at some fiction books that I bought but forgot about, started and dropped, or for some reason got diverted and never resumed reading.  Most of them are in the library box now.  But I have promised myself to read some that were distressingly bulky, like two of the Ken Follett series that started with Pillars of the Earth. I have lots of inspirational reading, short pieces or reflections that offer a good companion to my morning journal writing. It’s nice to have a place to find them when I am l looking for a better reading start to my day than the morning paper. That is one shelf that will be visited regularly to pull out a book for my reading table, decide where it goes when I am done reading it (keep? lend? recycle?), and adding new volumes to the collection.

Winter hibernation, with or without a pandemic, is a good time to resume your love affair with books.  They have no commercial interruptions.  They do not preface everything with Breaking News! or similar enticements to drop whatever you are doing and enter medialand.  They are, like a faithful pet, ready and waiting for your company when you choose to enjoy theirs.

So let me invite you to the feast spread before you, books you have loved or will love, books that will lose your attention after the first chapter and books that will not let you go. (Another friend gives a book 50 pages to persuade her to either ditch it or read to the end.) An organized pantry makes cooking much easier. An organized library does the same for the feast of words, ideas, images, and stories that is waiting for your attention.

Name That Base!

Now the Defense department has been authorized to replace the names of Confederate Generals on military bases,  whom should we honor instead? I know that there are at least 10 bases to be renamed, so decided to start the ball rolling. All of these fought—the only one fighting on the other side was Tecumseh, and he was quite justifiably playing self-defense.  Robert Smalls is my favorite hero of the civil war. He did great service to the Union.  Nathan Hale died for his country in the revolutionary war.   All but two of the others are military leaders one was an enslaved person and the other was an enlisted man in World War II.  Here are my candidates.

#1. Robert Smalls, the South Carolina-born slave who stole a ship from the Confederate navy in Charleston harbor and piloted it to the Union blockade to turn it over to the  U.S. Navy.  Smalls subsequently served in the U.S. Navy and later in Congress. He can be the new name of Fort Jackson in Columbia, SC.

#2-5.  Heroes of the American Revolution.  Francis Marion.  Sergeant Jasper, the hero of the battle of Fort Moultrie who declined a commission from the governor because he was illiterate. A county in South Carolina and a square in Savannah are named for him.  Lafayette, who offered invaluable help to George Washington and once had an installation named for him that has since been decommissioned.   John Paul Jones, founder of the American Navy—is there a navy base in need of a new name?

#6.  U.S. Grant for the Union side of the Civil War, but probably best used at a non-Southern military base.

#7-8. Generals Patton and Eisenhower.

#9. Nathan Hale.

#10. Tecumseh.

And as for #11, look him up! Isaac Woodard.

New Year’s Resolution #3: Simplicity

The third and final action virtue in my trinity of 2021 resolutions is simplicity.  It rarely appears on a list of virtues, yet it is at the core of two religions, Buddhism and Christianity.  It also is one of the spiritual tasks of the final stage of life after one’s hair has turned white and one has seen one’s grandsons in the Hindu tradition.  (Coloring my hair and pointing out that I have only granddaughters does not get me off the hook.) Simplicity means leading a less cluttered life in all respects, but for 2021 I will focus on three in particular: fewer possessions, living lightly on the earth (“live simply that others might simply live”), and decluttering the cluttered calendar.  

First and easiest, possessions. Having written a book on decluttering with my friend and distant cousin by marriage Fran Scoville, I recognize that decluttering my space is not an act but an ongoing process. Marie Kondo is an inspiration to me as she is to so many. Does this possession spark joy? If not, thank it and let it go.  Decluttered cabinets, countertops, closets, drawers, and spaces make it easier to find the things you do want to keep and use. Lots of recycling involved.  Reducing food waste is both decluttering and living lightly on the earth. Recycling from two of my hobbies, jigsaw puzzles and books, is pretty easy to do, with fellow puzzle fans and readers before the books finally wind up in the library to keep or sell to support the library, and the carefully repackaged puzzles get recycled to a consignment shop that supports a volunteer organization. Virtual decluttering is a challenge that I have begun to face by divorcing most social media, but I will continue to work on the challenge of managing the overwhelming volume of email by clicking more often on that magic word “unsubscribe.”

Living lightly on the earth has lots of dimensions. Using less energy with less driving, flying, and shopping.  Being mindful that ordering from amazon or other online services does not reduce energy consumption and may actually increase it compared to shopping mostly locally. Reducing food waste is another dimension.  Growing some of my vegetables.  Avoiding the use of pesticides and wasting energy (mine and the mower’s) on mowing a lawn, a continuation of my war on grass that began in 2020. Replacing grass with plants that provide habitat and are friendly to birds, bees, and butterflies. Empowering others to simply live spills over into prudence in charitable contributions that go to providing solar energy in sub-Saharan Africa and planting trees in the Brazilian rain forest.

Most challenging of all is the to-do list and the calendar, the tendency to over-commit time and energy and leave no space for spontaneity, silence, or what the Dutch call “nichtsen”–doing nothing. I have two major volunteer commitments for 2021, one tapering off starting in May, one continuing through the year, so I will limit my other volunteer obligations until that ‘space” is available. I feel more of a need to tend and befriend, so people time will be more central to my calendar, as I look forward to more of that time being in person and less via Zoom some time in 2021.

I once had a friend who always talked about repotting herself, like a pot-bound plan with a need to spread her roots and grow toward the sun.  (She eventually took a leap of faith, divorced her overbearing husband and remarried.)  For me, the annual tradition of New Year’s resolutions (some of which I have actually kept!) is a less dramatic but still meaningful, challenging, and enriching form of repotting myself, nourishing my physical, intellectual, and spiritual roots and letting myself grow toward the sun.  What kind of repotting will enrich your new year?

The Turning of the Year–Resolution #2

Patience is a virtue, except when it morphs into procrastination.  I am pretty good about not procrastinating (all right, maybe emptying the litter box, according to my cat) but I do find myself drawn to impatience, its opposite.  Impatience is living in the future, whether it is waiting for Christmas, or the kids to grow up, or the workday to end, or the new president to be inaugurated.  The grass is always greener in the future (especially since I am writing this blog at the winter solstice!).

The spiritual practice that is the best known cure for impatience is mindfulness.  Mindfulness is the practice of living in the moment and doing one thing at a time, a foreign notion to the familiar modern American world of multitasking and planning ahead.  I eat breakfast while writing in my journal and drink my tea ( a recent switch from coffee to reduce my over-stimulation) while reading the morning paper.  I cannot watch television without something to occupy my hands (jigsaw puzzles are a favorite in the winter).

I took a six -week class in mindfulness meditation several years ago, and the experience that particularly stayed with me was mindful eating. Focus on the food.  Think about where it cam from, and be grateful for those who made it possible. Look at it, experience it.  Don’t take another bite until you have finished the first.  Mindful eating is not only a good spiritual practice, but also a good way to reduce one’s intake!

  I grew up in an environment where eating was competitive, especially with my older brother, who was a voracious eater. It was fueled by his growth into a 6 foot 5 inch frame, while I topped out at 5’4″. But the habit persisted. When I eat out with a friend, I always finish first. Now I watch the same story play out between my 60 pound dog and my five pound cat.  The tiny 20-year-old cat eats mindfully and returns to nibble throughout the day.  If I do not shelter her food from the dog, my big barking protector will hunt out her food and finish it off, which is not good for either of them.  And trust me, both cat and dog practice mindfulness to the nth degree.  Always focused on what they are doing in the moment.

As I write this, I am resisting the temptation to multitask by turning on NPR for the news of the day.  When I finish this blog, I will turn my attention to the next round of my daily routine, the most challenging in terms of mindfulness.  Five miles, 15 minutes on the exercycle to energize the active part of my day. There my challenge is to silence the monkey mind by concentrating on the body, the exercycle, progress toward my goal.. It helps if, before mounting the exercycle, I make out my to-do list.  Writing things down is off-loading those jumping monkey thoughts to the hard drive, so that I can be patiently in the present, knowing that my list will be waiting for me when I am ready for it.

There is a longer term dimension to patience and impatience as well.  I dashed through life at warp speed.  Married on my 21st birthday, I took three courses in summer school to graduate from college a year early and start graduate school.  At 28 I had a Ph.D., a husband, two children, and an assistant professorship.  I can’t go back and live those years more slowly, but when I retired (early, of course!) I did go back to graduate school to get a master’s degree in theological studies and to savor the experience.  In part to deliberately slow the process and in part because I was commuting a fair distance, I took three years to get a two-year degree. Graduate school in Emory University’s Candler School of Theology was a good place to practice mindfulness.

As I approach my 80th birthday in the summer of 2021, I am very aware that I have  a limited number of years left, especially years of good health, eyesight, and stamina. The past is long and the future is short.  I cannot afford to live the future any longer.  I need to savor the present.  Yes, I need to plan for those final years—that’s prudence, the first virtue on my three virtue list for 2021.  But I also need to live them!  I hereby publicly declare that I am committing to patience and its cousin, mindfulness, in 2021. 

There is an old joke about Unitarians that goes something like this.  Why do Unitarians sing hymns so badly?  Because they are always reading ahead to see if they agree with the theology. Reading ahead does get in the way of experiencing and singing joyfully in the present. I wish you, and me, a mindful, present-focused, patient 2021.

The Turning of the Year: The First Virtue Resolution

I think of these winter holidays—solstice, Hannukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Day—as one long celebration of  the turning of the year and a fresh start.  Like many Americans, I am more than ready to turn the page on a very difficult and challenging year. At this time of year starting again has always meant New year’s resolutions. 

My mother introduced me to this practice.  I remember that when I was ten, I resolved to learn to light the gas kitchen range, which did not have  pilot light. Pretty scary.  I did.  But after a year when we were on sabbatical and had a similar situation, with every lighting of the broiler threatening to burn down the house.  I made a lifelong commitment to electric cooking stoves.   

I have just finished the draft of a new book called Passionately Moderate: Democracy and Civic Virtue. Working on that book, I have been thinking a lot about virtue this year, and I decided to resolve, not so much as to do in 2021, as to be. I picked three virtues that I wanted to make into habits of the heart that guided my actions.  They are prudence, temperance, and simplicity. Each one gets a blog—one today, one next week, and one on New Year’s day.  Today’s reflection is on prudence.

Prudence was one of Aristotle’s private virtues, along with temperance. (His public virtues were courage and justice.) Prudence the quintessential economist’s virtue, wise use of resources and especially money, but also time and attention. So how do I want to use those resources in 2021 in ways that are wiser and more intentional?

I started with money, and I settled on the magic number three (since I started with three virtues).  What are the three most important things I want to do with my money in 2021? I divided this virtue also into three parts, body, mind, and spirit. For the body,  I want to save more, because I am approaching my 80th birthday and watching my friends experience the challenges of aging—even myself, although on a slower track so far.  I want to be sure that I have enough resources to ensure that I don’t burden my children with the cost of my long-term care should that become necessary.  I set a target figure for annual saving.

 Second, I want to travel again—I missed it so much last year. Travel is a treat for all three aspects of being, but especially the mind. I learn so much about other places and other cultures when I travel.

Third, I want to ensure that ten percent of my income goes to charity, an act of compassion that is an expression of spirit.  Most of it goes to organizations that help those in need and to my religious community, with a scattering of supporting the arts (like ETV) and, in even-numbered years, political candidates.  

With those three numbers engraved in stone, the rest of the budget, from electric bills and dog grooming to food and taxes—had to divvy up what was left. I know that as I get older, I will probably travel less and spend more on services that enable me to live at home as long as possible, but I’m not there yet, so this resolution will get an annual review.

What about the other resources of time and attention? Again, I want to spend my time on caring for body, mind and spirit  Each day has to satisfy three priorities—exercise and healthy eating for the body, reading and learning for the mind, contemplation and mindfulness for the spirit. Like the budget, the to-do list has to make those three items priorities.

British writer E.B. White once said that when he woke up in the morning, he couldn’t decide whether to enjoy the world or improve the world.  It made it hard to plan his day. It’s not either/or, it is both/and.  Some of that time and attention needs to be directed toward improving the world, making it more peaceful, compassionate, just, and sustainable.  The content of those improvements depends on making habits of  the other two virtues, temperance and simplicity.  To be continued. ..

Gratitude and Generosity

I am working on a book about civic virtue. One of the virtues on my list is generosity. I have to admit, on first glance generosity sounds like an odd civic virtue.  Aren’t we just being generous with other people’s money?  Yes and no. Civic generosity has to be based on a shared vision of the good society, and we can actively promote a vision that is inclusive and empowering.

I have been writing the past few blogs about what I call attitude virtues, like hope and trust.  There are only four attitude virtues. The other two are grace or gratitude, and love or lovingkindness. More on that love in my next blog, but  right now, as Thanksgiving is approaching fast and Christmas is not far behind, I want to focus on gratitude as an attitude and generosity as gratitude in action.

Grace or gratitude (both spring from the Latin word gratia) is accepting that much of what one is blessed with in life is a free gift of nature, ancestry, and/or circumstances, luck, and the kindness of strangers.  Few of us deserve many of the blessings we enjoy. An attitude of grace or gratitude acknowledges the extent to which one is privileged in some way or another. Theologian Galen Ginguerich in The Way of Gratitude regards gratitude as the most fundamental of the attitude virtues. 

The appropriate  behavior responses to gratitude are generosity, compassion, and kindness to those less fortunate. Gratitude also calls people to accept the responsibilities of citizenship, including paying taxes, and to acknowledge our independence by  providing for the common good..

Generosity is the active form of gratitude. Generosity also embodies the virtue attitude of love, agape, lovingkindness—caring about the well-being of others. It reflects the attitude virtues of trust and hope, the expectation (or sometimes demand!)  that generosity will be directed in ways that help those in genuine need and minimize waste and gaming the system.  But most of all, it flows from grace or gratitude, an attitude that makes us more willing to share with others, either through personal sharing or in collaboration with others in private and public efforts to meet human needs and promote human flourishing. Some people may express their generosity with time and attention, others with services, others with financial support. When gratitude affects our civic behavior, it shows up in similar ways—a willingness to get involved in government in active ways from voting, campaigning, running for office to advocating, conversation, compromise, openness to the ideas of others.

The medieval Jewish rabbi and scholar Maimonides suggested that we think about charity, or giving, or generosity; in terms of a ladder of giving.  Here are the eight rungs on his ladder.

  1. To give donations even if they are given grudgingly.
  2. To give less than one should, but do so cheerfully.
  3. To give directly to the poor upon being asked.
  4. To give directly to the poor without being asked.
  5. To make donations when the recipient is aware of the donor’s identity, but the donor still doesn’t know the specific identity of the recipient.
  6. To make donations when the donor is aware to whom the charity is being given, but the recipient is unaware of the source.
  7. To give assistance in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other. Communal funds administered by responsible people are also in this category.
  8. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.

As one climbs the ladder, the separation between donor and recipient becomes larger, so that the gift is not for public display (like plaques honoring donors to a hospital wing, University building, or museum), but rather for the greater good.  There are many ways to be anonymous.  One of them is to support programs, both public and private, that either provide immediate relief in cases of personal crisis or natural disaster.  The final rung on the ladder, which embodies rungs four , five, six and seven, is the gift of empowerment and sustainability. It is captured in the proverb “give a man a fish, and he can eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he can eat for a lifetime.” Both immediate relief and empowering sustainability respect the dignity of the recipients. While generosity flows from grace/gratitude, giving in ways that help people to become more independent and empowered are also  expressions of love, trust, and hope.

In this season of thankfulness, may your gratitude find expression in ways that are meaningful, hopeful, and life-affirming.

Trust Part 2

This past week was an encouraging one for restoring and affirming trust in our governing institutions.  I worked at the polls with people of different political persuasions, but there was no partisanship.  I did discover that one of the other team members supported Biden and another supported Trump, but it did not enter into their work of enabling voters to participate in the process.  We were a team working on a task.

The same has been true in states around the country, especially including Georgia. In that state, the electoral infrastructure is entirely under Republican control, but the vote counting was carried out with diligence, caution, and integrity, even though the outcome was not for their preferred candidate. The threatened intimidation of voters at the polls and violence in the streets if President Trump was not re-elected did not materialize. The nation is remarkably calm in the aftermath of the election.

Now that it is clear that Joe Biden is going to be our new president, it is time to put the rhetoric and divisiveness behind us and learn to trust each other again.  Whichever side you were on, reach out to someone who voted differently.  Commit to being engaged in politics, looking for candidates who will tread a centrist path, avoiding the extremes of both parties.

Authoritarian governments are built on suspicion, distrust, division, nonnegotiable positions.  Democratic governments are built on trust, mutual respect, and compromise.  Democracy prioritizes good process over “good” outcomes.  Goodness of  process means impartiality, fairness, transparency, and integrity.  Goodness of outcomes is in the eye of the beholder.

If you believe in democracy, if you are willing to trust the good intentions of your fellow citizens, find a way to help make it work.

In God We Trust–Who Else?

Faith is a virtue, but it is also word with multiple meanings.  Belief, trust, and loyalty are the most common ones.  Saint Paul’s use of the Greek word pistis is often translated as allegiance or loyalty, while the Latin version (credo) has come to mean belief (as in creeds).  These meanings are  not mutually exclusive.  However, to the extent that people interpret the term belief in a religious context as a set of statements about reality that they are asked to accept as factual truths, trust may be a more useful translation of faith as one of the core attitudinal virtues.

Loyalty is more a behavior than an attitude and is somewhat neutral as a potential virtue, because one can be loyal to something that is harmful or destructive. Our nation is currently deeply divided by mutual mistrust in politics, in part fostered and nurtured by individual and groups in furtherance of their own agenda.  In particular, they cultivate loyalty to their own group and distrust of everyone else—which supports the assertion that loyalty is not always a virtue. For our civic purposes, trust rather than belief or loyalty is the most useful interpretation of the virtue called faith.

Trust lies somewhere between gullibility or naiveté  as its extreme and paranoia or simply distrust as its opposite. Trust is not blind.  Trust Allah but tie up your camel is an old Arab proverb. Former Soviet Leader Michael Gorbachev urged that both sides trust but verify. Doubt lies somewhere between trust and disbelief, and serves the useful purpose of calling us to ground trust in factual knowledge and demonstrated behavior by those people and institutions we have invited into positions of power and authority.

 Trust begins by listening to your gut, your instincts, but it does not end there.  There is also that all-important verify part when it comes to practicing trust in ocmmunity.  Whom do you trust to listen and respectfully disagree, opening your mind to other ways of thinking?  What sources of information are credible? Just like active hope, cautious trust is an invaluable attitudinal virtue to cultivate and exercise for every aspect of our lives, not just governance. Democratic process is just “trust but verify” on a larger scale.  Knowing that there will be another election plays a key role in holding elected officials accountable to the public trust.

Trust lies somewhere between gullibility or naiveté as its extreme and paranoia or simply distrust as its opposite. Trust is not blind. Trust Allah but tie up your camel is an old Arab proverb. Former Soviet Leader Michael Gorbachev urged that both sides trust but verify. Doubt lies somewhere between trust and disbelief, and serves the purpose of calling us to ground trust in factual knowledge and demonstrated behavior by those people and institutions we have invited into positions of power and authority.

Trust is an important element of a nation’s social capital as described by Stiglitz et.al. in Measuring What Counts.  Social capital has been described as the glue that holds a society together—a shared history, sometimes a shared ancestry, holidays and celebrations, customs and usually language. Trust is a form of social capital that makes it possible to enter into agreements without spelling out all the details or constantly running to the courts to enforce them.  I recall a contract to build an addition on our home many decades ago.  The contract read, “build upstairs addition, $10,000.”  When he would tell me to go pick out light fixtures, or carpeting, I would say, “Do I pay for them?” He said  “No, it’s in the contract!” Contracts are less likely to be spelled out in detail in a small town where everyone knows everyone else.  I was a relative newcomer and had to learn the local customs, which were grounded in trust that was in turn grounded in networks of kinship and neighborhoods.

 Trust is not just an attitudinal virtue when it comes to civil society; it is also an asset that builds slowly but dissipates quickly. Inequality and diversity both can undermine trust in civic institutions., Inequality creates fear and resentment toward those who use money to gain power over others. Diversity encourages the creation of silos of people with a common heritage, and fosters distrust.

Trust begins by listening to your gut, your instincts, but it does not end there.  That’s the verify part.  Whom do you trust to listen and respectfully disagree, opening your mind to other ways of thinking?  What sources of information are credible? Just like active hope, cautious trust is an invaluable attitudinal virtue to cultivate and exercise for every aspect of our lives, not just governance. Democratic process is just “trust but verify” on a larger scale.  Knowing that there will be another election plays a key role in holding elected officials accountable to the public trust.

Historically, kings ruled by divine right, tyrants usurped authority and held on to it by force.  Only in modern times did the checks and balances of democratic constitutions provide a good reason to trust authority because no one had absolute power. In the United States, the division of authority among three branches of government and the sharing of power between the federal government and the states both offer constraints on abuse of power. But democracies have succumbed to dictatorship in the past. Our trust as citizens has been frequently undermined and challenged by social media and self-serving politicians who are careless of with the truth and opportunistic in the use of power, whose loyalty to party is placed above loyalty to the Constitution and the public. In a democracy, the survival of self-government or any other form of government depends on the faith, belief, and trust of its citizens in its elected leaders’ willingness and ability to govern in their interest.

Betrayal of that trust to seek to seize and retain power and/or exercise it for personal benefit will undermine authority. One of our biggest challenges as a nation is to affirm a “trust but verify” attitude as a habit of the heart that leads to respect for authority and for our fellow citizens,, civic participation, and willingness to compromise—all essential to the survival of democracy.

Historically, kings ruled by divine right, tyrants usurped authority and held on to it by force.  Only in modern times did the checks and balances of democratic constitutions provide a reason to trust authority because no one had absolute power. In the United States, the division of authority among three branches of government and the sharing of power between the federal government and the states both offer constraints on abuse of power. But democracies have succumbed to dictatorship in the past.

Our trust as citizens has been frequently undermined and challenged by social media and self-serving politicians who are careless of with the truth and opportunistic in the use of power, whose loyalty to party is placed above loyalty to the Constitution and the public. In a democracy, the survival of self-government or any other form of government depends on the faith, belief, and trust of its citizens in its elected leaders’ willingness and ability to govern in their interest.

In what or whom should we trust? Our instincts. Our doubts. And those voices and people an sources that have proved trustworthy in the past,whether they are scientists, public officials, personal friends, news sources, or communities and organizations that are open to other views and different perspectives. Trust is the foundation of democracy. Don’t let distrust take away our most precious possession as a nation.

When Hope is Hard to Find

Today’s virtue is hope. That title is from a hymn called “ Come sing a song with me,” and the line is “and I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find.” Hope is a virtue, a habit of the heart in the words of sociologist Robert Bellah. It is one of four attitudinal virtues—hope, faith, love, and grace.  Three from Saint Paul and one more that are the ground for all the behavioral virtues that we observe in ourselves and others.

Like all virtues, hope lies at the golden mean between its opposite—despair or pessimism—and its extreme—optimism. I used to think of myself as an optimist, but that was before I learned the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is just expecting things to turn out well.  Hope, or what theologian Joanna Macy calls Active Hope, means having a vision of how things might be, could be, should be, and working to bring it about. Hope in the heart is the mother of virtues like courage, responsibility, engagement. Hope’s motto is Yes, I can, or even better, Yes, we can.

Hope requires two tools to direct and sustain active hopeful engagement.  One is a vision of a better way, a better life, a better world.  The other is a community that can share or at least “catch” the hope and provide mutual support in working toward it. Vision embraced by a community is how we put our hope to work.

Hope has to confront risk and move beyond it.  One of the most fascinating concepts in statistics is the two types of error.  Type I is accepting a hypothesis as true when it is, in fact, false.  Type II error is rejecting as false a hypothesis that is, in fact, true.  A high standard for truth, which is the goal of science, minimizes the first risk but increases the second.  Hope means accepting a certain amount of risk of being wrong in order to move on.  Risk invites fear, and fear can paralyze active hope. All the great heroes of history and literature kept hope alive, confronting an even embracing risk in order to achieve what they did—Mandala in ending apartheid in South Africa, suffragists in the 72 year struggle for voting rights for women, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement.

So where do we find hope when hope is hard to find?  First, in having a big enough vision that the most we can do is propel it in the right direction. Second, in being part of a community that shares that vision and passes it on. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us that Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  The suffragists in Seneca Falls in 1848 did not get to vote, but my great grandmother, born in 1854, marched for women’s suffrage with countless others and voted in the presidential elections in 1920 and 1924.  She was saved by hope, which she caught from her foremothers and passed on to her grandchildren.

Hopes need to be big hopes, shared hopes, inspiring hopes.  Restoring civility to our nation. Protecting democracy. Reducing violence. Resisting climate change. Caring for the vulnerable. Pick one or two hopes for the future and find companions to work toward them.   Which hope will you embrace and work for both alone and in community to bring about?

Dwelling Together in Peace (?)

Economist Albert Hirschman wrote a classic book in the 1970s called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. He explored decisions to stay or leave, and if we stay, how we might try to  bring about change by speaking up or speaking out.  His examples range from divorce, to social clubs, where we work or shop, to where we live, to the Mafia, which is quite risky to leave. A good friend once called exiting by physically relocating “the geographic solution,” moving to the other side of the fence where the grass is greener only to find that you brought the same dissatisfied self along. So sometimes adapting to the culture and its values is the best choice. If you have a reasonable alternative—another job, another place to live—exit is less costly, but if the alternatives are unsatisfactory or costly, you may decide to grit your teeth, hang in there, and try to bring about change.  

Sometimes we exit and then use voice to express our frustration after our departure. Other times we try to use voice and when that fails to bring about change, we reluctantly exit. Voice is the primary tool of the political scientist, exit the strategy favored by economists.

Loyalty is a factor in staying or leaving.  That’s why advertisers try to develop brand loyalty, why organizations have high entrance fees or departure penalties, why colleges and churches stress the community and identity components of the experience they offer in order to encourage people to remain (for colleges, as supportive alumni). Many organizations—social, civic, commercial, religious—stress that they are held together by shared values, and belonging to that group becomes a part of your identity.

States and nations have shared civic values. Sometimes those values that don’t reflect our personal preferences. The state or nation in which we are born is often hard to leave, because of the bonds of shared culture, family and friends, the comfort of familiar surroundings, a shared history and language. Often it feels like a take it or leave it situation. Someone else has defined the values and the priority among those values, and you feel like you had no voice in shaping or changing them.

High costs or serious drawbacks to leaving can help a city (or a college, or a congregation, or a business, or a family) that is going through difficult times  recover and change in a positive way, because those who find exit difficult will use voice instead. They will make their concerns known and encourage others to do likewise. If they don’t like their city government, it is less costly  to run for city council than to sell your house and move to another town. Feeling trapped in a marriage, they may choose marriage counseling over divorce. Rather than taking a store off the shopping list, customers can talk to the management about why they are thinking of leaving. 

Americans arrived in North America from many different places.  Except for the African Americans who arrived as slaves, most of those who emigrated to American made the decision to come for one of two driving reasons.  After all, it takes a pretty powerful motive to cross a very big ocean, knowing that it you may never again see your homeland and some of your loved ones.  Some were driven by war, revolution, or disaster—the Irish potato famine, for example. Others came because they had a taste for adventure, to try something new. They were people tended to who value freedom over security. 

That preference has left its mark on our shared DNA. It leads to favoring the geographic solution to dissatisfaction, a pattern that continued until we ran out of frontiers, but until recently was still reflected in a high rate of geographic mobility among Americans. Mobile Americans assumed that they did not have to bloom where we were planted, but could  uproot themselves and start over somewhere else. Exit was a viable option.

As the frontier closed, and the effects of being transient took a toll of family life and children’s sense of security, American mobility within the country has declined. Psychologist Bella de Paula[1] writes that “only about 10 percent of Americans — or even fewer — change homes in any given year. Twenty years ago, in the year 2000, about 15 percent moved. Twenty years before that, in 1980, about 18 percent changed homes. And in 1950, about 20 percent of Americans moved — about twice as many as today. What’s more, when people move, it is usually not very far…geography professor Thomas Cooke found that most people who move stay within the same county, fewer move to a different county within the same state, and fewer still move to a different state. In 2019, only 1.5% of Americans moved to a different state.” She cites technology that enables us to access resources without relocating, the high cost of moving, two-career families, and the joy of “rootedness” as reasons for the decline. 

Americans today are less likely to exit and more likely to use voice to bring about change from within. That reduced mobility calls for learning to live with others who do not see the world the way we do, and to focus on those values that we do share. Instead, in our current political environment, it also often results in voice being expressed as violence and polarization, feeling that we are stuck with a bunch of fellow citizens that just don’t get us—on both sides.

As I write this, we are headed toward an election that will continue the polarization regardless of the outcome.  So this blog is the first of a series of five on the core civic virtues and how practicing them might help us to restore civility, respect,  and a willingness to compromise to our public dialogue. Next week: Active hope.


[1] https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-psychology-of-staying-put-why-mobility-in-the-u-s-has-been-declining-for-decades/.