What’s Your Oxymoron?

I am working on a book with the oxymoronic title Passionately Moderate, and it got me to thinking about the labels I apply to myself that are oxymoronic. I am a feminist traditionalist, for example. I believe strongly in women’s autonomy and inclusion, but I was married for 53 years to a loving husband and raised three daughters to believe that being a career woman and married with or without children was not a variety of oxymoron. I was also a band booster and a Girl Scout leader and a Sunday School teacher. I cook, I clean, I sew as I was raised to do.

When I was working as a policy analyst (an  economist at the Strom Thurmond Institute who never voted for Strom), I had a picture of myself on my office door finishing a lap quilt for my daughter. Caption: Professor, economist, quilter. As poet Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”

Religiously, I identify as a liberal Christian Unitarian Universalist with touches of Buddhism and paganism in my religious makeup.  My Universalist self does not accept the idea of exclusive possession of the truth by any one way of being in religious community, so others may find this identity oxymoronic, but I prefer to call it holistic. I am progressive on social issues and fiscally conservative, but I always have to explain that fiscally conservative doesn’t necessarily mean smaller government, it means more responsible and accountable government.  I recall many years ago a student coming up to ask a question after class and he began by saying, “Well, I know you are conservative, so…” I think he meant that he found himself agreeing with me, and his label was conservative, so I must be conservative.

I am also a New England native but an adopted Southerner for the last 2/3 of my life, which make me more a split personality than an oxymoron, but I hold both cultures to have enriched my life in different ways. I probably have other contradictions in my makeup that I am not aware of, but I count on my daughters and my friends to point them out to me.

So I invite you to reflect on your own oxymoronic labels.  Practice oxymoronics.  Try being both-and rather than either/or. It can be enriching, rewarding, and a good foundation for a bridge to others who share some of your “oxys” and others of your “morons,” along with those that are just their own.

Being a Good Citizen

2020 offered us a crash course in how our federal government works, or at least how it is supposed to work.  Certainly we all were introduced to parts of the Constitution and the electoral process that we never thought about.  Certifying an election. Curing mail- in ballots. Drop boxes, signature verification, and witness signatures. Not only did we learn a lot about elections, we also now know more about the three ways to remove a president from office (four, counting electing someone else)—impeachment, the 25th amendment, and the 14th amendment.

It is my earnest hope as a 53-year member of the League of Women Voters that the events of 2020 inspired us all to becoming better citizens—more aware and more involved.  Democracy dies in darkness.  It is more threatened by the indifference of the majority than the violent anger of one minority or another. Since it’s still early in the new year, let me invite you to practice five essential civic virtues that are part of the privilege and responsibility of being an American citizen.

1. Pragmatism is my favorite civic virtue, probably because I spent 15 years teaching in a public policy program. According to Aristotle, virtues lie at the golden mean between their opposites and their extremes.  The opposite of pragmatism is absolutism, while the extreme is anything goes, a political form of indifference or apathy.  The best is often the enemy of the good. Or the good enough.  Beware of candidates who stand for absolutes.  Barry Goldwater learned that in 1964 when he declared that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.  He carried five states. Sometimes the best we can do is to move policy a bit farther in the right direction.

2.   Pragmatism and its twin sister, compromise, are one form of acceptance and respect, which is the second civic virtue.  But acceptance and respect goes beyond pragmatism to being sure that everyone is heard before a compromise is made. All lives matter, but especially the ones that haven’t seemed to matter in the past. In the 19th century and into the 20th black and women’s lives didn’t matter enough.  More recently, we have included LGBTQ people, native Americans and immigrants.  We are also called to include those who feel left behind by a society of rapid change and concentration of wealth, and those on both ends of the political spectrum who feel suppressed and unheard, who feel that their free speech and freedom of religion rights are being trampled.  Listening, not just to those with whom we agree but those who see the world differently, is an essential practice in both private and public life.

2. The third civic virtue is honesty, integrity, transparency—whatever you call it, truthfulness is a critical civic virtue for maintaining or restoring trust in our society and our government. Faith or trust in institutions crumbles when there is no honesty, no disclosure, or worse, spread of misinformation, a culture of falsehood. It is the responsibility of public officials to practice honesty in all forms, and it is the responsibility of citizens to seek it out, test its plausibility, and demand honesty and transparency.  That includes supporting a free press and listening to a variety of media voices, not just the ones on your side of the political fence.

3.  Fairness, justice, and equality are a package civic virtue that  pervades every public issue, every program, every institution to provide equal access to the common goods of life.  Justice, fairness, and equality are not just equal treatment under law, but equal opportunity, equal respect, and equal access to the good things of life. Equality in access to opportunities and employment, to health care and housing. Justice in equal treatment for equal offenses and appropriately unequal treatment for lesser and greater offenses. Fairness in the distribution of resources among competing groups and interests.

5. Responsibility or diligence (or civic engagement) means committing to do your share of the work of public pace in ways that use your gifts to make your city, state, or nation a better place.  I am so proud of my oldest daughter and my youngest granddaughter who took four hours of online training and then worked a 12 hour day as poll workers in the November  election. Sammi, who just turned 16 two days before the election, served at the polls along with seven of her classmates.  They give me hope for the next generation.

Responsibility means voting, listening to candidates, following legislation, letting officials from president and members of Congress down to city councils and school boards what your concerns are and why they should vote in a particular way. It means paying attention and engaging with fellow citizens to try to make a better, more nurturing, more sustainable world for ourselves and generations to come.

It’s still January.  Not to late to make a New Year’s resolution. If is five is too many, start with #5 — civic engagement– and let it lead you to the other four in how you assert your citizenship as a duty, a right, and a privilege.

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 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 community.  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.