Being the Change: My New Year’s Resolution

We are headed for interesting times as a nation. There is little evidence that people share Community-oriented values these days. We live in collectives more than Communities.

No one seems to expect civility, neither of their neighbor nor themselves just now. We fear each other, as strangers in a strange and dangerous land. We want our Government to make it right, to make us safe. But is Government the answer?

Some argue it is the problem. I do not think so. I think We the People are misguided in seeking solutions there. Governments, good ones, attempt to respond to what people ask for. And what have we been asking for? For laws and law enforcement to make us feel safe. We even ask it to make us feel cared about, not just cared for. Only people can do that, of course, and only person to person.

But we aren’t thinking very clearly these days. Otherwise we wouldn’t be asking the Government to try to enforce civility. Perhaps we’re thinking too much and it’s in the nature of thinking wherein lies the problem. I propose that this problem cannot be solved in our heads. It has to be solved in our hearts.

But what’s the problem? I am.

If I want to be able to trust you, I must be trustworthy. If I want a Community that values civility, I must practice it. If I want disarmament, I must be willing to disarm. If I wait for you to do these things first, I am part of the problem. It is this focus on self that is missing from the recipe we need to improve our country and our communities–a focus on me, without which there can be no “we.”

And just what am I waiting for? For others to earn my trust. For others to show concern and compassion first, so I can know whether it is worth it, whether they are worth it. But I have no right to blame others for their incivility—they are merely doing the same as I am, and for the same reason. We are all waiting for the other to make the first move. Yet we proclaim that trust, civility, non-violence are our values. But if they truly were, wouldn’t each of us feel personally obligated to live by them regardless of what others did? That’s what a value is; what a value does: it compels behavior because of a belief that it is right and necessary.

But there’s the clue. My behavior reveals what I truly value: not trust, civility, or peace so much as justice. There is so much talk about “fairness.” We all seem to feel cheated by someone, or something. And again, we want the Government to make it right. But justice legislated can never create Community, and we wouldn’t need government intervention in the first place if trust, civility, and non-violence already existed out of the love and respect we held for each other.

While others in far away lands struggle for freedom from government control, what is our struggle, we who already have our Freedom. We wish to “stand tall” in the international arena but for what do we stand? And to where would we lead? In other words, to what purpose shall our precious Freedom be put? To “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” we answer. But the only way to ensure any of these is if we can count on each other; if we are a Community. It is only through others, through Community with others, that our basic needs can be met, both our physical needs and just as importantly, our psychological ones.

I agree with President Obama, we are interdependent, not independent. No one succeeds alone. But saying it does not make people believe it and neither will any governmental action. This concept of interdependence is diametrically opposite our American independence myth. Both the haves and have-nots are more apt to resent interdependence. Both want freedom from it, freedom from each other, each for their different reasons. So we have a steep climb ahead.

The only way to create Community, and thus ensure life, liberty, happiness is to re-create our own psyches. How? First, by coming to realize it is in our self-interest to do so. Our very survival as a nation depends on it. Second, by realizing the difference between my self and your self is trivial, largely illusory. It is not possible to realize this intellectually, however. Intellectually, differences become more real, and quite solid.

We believe our differences are very, very real. It is from good-hearted people thinking through this problem that we were lead to the doctrine of “respect for difference.” This is certainly better than hating others different than ourselves, but it has further reified the underlying problem, which is the belief we are different, have different needs, different goals, different dreams, and different lives.

Our differences seem so obvious to us that to question their existence seems silly. We are categorizing beings, after all.

But couldn’t we consider that we have more in common than any differences we may have? Don’t we share a common humanity? Couldn’t I, shouldn’t I respect you not because you are different but because we are the same? Aren’t we all are born, don’t we all grow old, all get sick, and all die? Won’t all of us someday lose everything we have? What reality is more real than these? What mental categories can undo these existential bonds?

There is nothing the government can do about the world in this regard. I must be focused on bringing about the change I want to see by changing me. I am both the problem, and the way forward. If all or many of the me’s are civil and compassionate, the “we” will be.

So this is my Holiday pledge, a pledge I ask you to consider making, for both our benefits: to re-double my own efforts to grow (1) in my experience of our essential sameness, (2) in my knowledge that what is good for you is good for me and vice versa; (3) in my feeling of compassion both for myself and you, and (4) in my ability to behave in accord with this deepest wisdom.

Happy Holidays and the Best New Year ever, America.

Gerry Brooks is the director of a residential brain injury rehabilitation program, a student of Zen, and lover of beauty.  He lives in upstate New York with his wife and two dogs.