Though there are many divisive issues and personalities in our country, I believe most thinking Americans agree that there is something missing, something lost in civil society—that we are somehow losing the glue that holds us together. Unfortunately, the thought leaders in our culture—locally, regionally, or nationally–are not seeking to find common ground in addressing our challenges, but are further dividing our nation from within, which, as Lincoln reminded us, is the only way our nation can fall from greatness.
Not all of the history of western civilization is something we want to perpetuate, but among the real treasures of western civilization which seem to be declining or missing in 21st Century America are values such as civility, a sense of the common good, respect for people with differing opinions, the discipline to act on reason instead of feeling, deferred gratification for future generations, the blessings of functional families, open-minded debate in contrast to sound-bite analysis, humility about our limited understanding, concern for our neighbor, love for country, and confidence in a brighter future.
In varying degrees, most Rotarians will agree that these are desirable characteristics that are becoming all too rare in our society—and the degradation and/or neglect of these values appears to be led by the culture-shaping institutions of education, government, and media. An objective observer might say we are far along on the cycle from “bondage to spiritual faith to courage to abundance to selfishness to complacency to apathy to dependence to bondage.” Though we are uncertain of the author of that cycle, a careful reading of history seems to confirm the general truth of this cycle.
As we embrace the Rotary motto of “service above self” we cannot afford to despair or to give up. My natural tendency is to complain about the state of culture, rather than serve others above self by actually shouldering my share of the burden to do something about it. If the task seems daunting (it does to me), where should we begin? The challenges are multi-faceted and thus the answers will also be multi-faceted. I would suggest the following places to start reversing this cycle:
- Love my neighbor as myself and thus seek the common good in my individual and community actions.
- Acknowledge my humanity, and thus my limited understanding and the need to learn from and work with others for real solutions.
- Identify and return to the many principles that unite us—principles that have been proven throughout history and have been bought with a great price by those on whose shoulders we stand, such as the rule of law, equal opportunity, free enterprise, submission to the common good, limited government, individual responsibility, freedom of expression and faith, fairness, respect for one another, etc.
- Acknowledge the warning of our forefathers that liberty can be guaranteed only to a people who are moral, educated, and committed to values higher than self-interest.
- Recognize that solutions do not have to all be ‘either-or’ nor ‘win-lose’, but in our pluralistic society, there is room and opportunity for all citizens to benefit—even when we disagree.
I am optimistic that America is waking up to the realization that its successes and prosperity may have lulled it into squandering its freedom and its future. When seen through the prism of the above values, our many cultural and political problems begin once again seem potentially solvable. It is late. Let’s saddle up and get to work!