The cultural roots of our political problems.
It’s become clear in the interim that things are not in good shape, that our problems are societal. The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis.
College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.
Here are some of them:
Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.
Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing. It was external to me.
The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.
I can make myself happy. This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.
But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.
It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.
Life is an individual journey. This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.
In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.
By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.
You have to find your own truth. This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you!
The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose.
The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.
Robert Reich examines Trump’s dark vision for America, and how to create a progressive message for the future.
- Heroic Individual
- Benevolent Community
- Mob at the Gate
- Rot at the Top
Female politicians show that rising to power is a group effort.
At the end of this month, Nancy Pelosi will retake her position on the podium behind the president as he gives his State of the Union address. As speaker of a House that is more female and more racially diverse than at any time in American history, Ms. Pelosi on the dais will represent more than just Democratic gains: She will be a visual symbol of a profound shift in how those with power might wield it.
For too long, female power has been calculated using the arbitrary measuring stick of how men exercised authority; women, as a result, largely shaped themselves to these male-determined standards and norms. But the women of the 116th Congress are redefining what it means to be powerful and reshaping some of the most dearly held American fables in the process.
Power, for all of American history, has been white and male, and maintaining that monopoly has required a series of agreed-upon conventions and plotlines. A handful of women and people of color have, in recent years, managed to get a foot in the door, but the definition of what power means, and the male-centered story of how one gets it, remains in place.
According to this script, power is meritocratic; those who earn it do so individually through their own hard work. Power has a particular look and a particular sound: tall and deep-voiced. Power is all-encompassing: a partner and children are the backdrop for a life centered on the pursuit of greatness; family indicates that the powerful person is grounded enough to be trusted, but the family is fundamentally a body that benefits from the powerful person, not a body that benefits him and fundamentally enables his success.
Within this story of meritocracy is the promise that anyone can achieve political power and success if they are good enough and if they work hard enough; that elected offices have for so long so wholly rested in male hands suggests simply that men have long been more worthy of them.
As a result, and by necessity, barrier breakers have largely followed this same script, from the practical to the descriptive to the aesthetic. When women and people of color did gain political power, their ascension was often used to prop up the existing meritocratic narrative: They had achieved, and so anyone can. The subtext: Perhaps the dearth of women and people of color in office meant they hadn’t worked hard enough for it.
This narrative of American political power is pervasive enough to be largely invisible. The women who folded themselves into the existing story were perhaps not so much doing it intentionally as acting according to the script on offer, without much space to imagine something different.
But as more women have entered the political realm, they have created more space for authenticity over self-aggrandizement. This is especially true as politicians come from a wider diversity of communities and backgrounds, each with different norms around authority.
Today’s rising female politicians tell a very different story than “I worked hard, and so I got here by myself.” One by one, they credit those who inspired their success, supported their ascent and cleared the trail so they could walk further still.
[While] European mystics and contemplatives often lived in community, they tended to focus on the individual experience of encountering the divine presence. African American contemplatives turned the “inward journey” into a communal experience. . . . The word contemplation includes but does not require silence or solitude. Instead, contemplative practices can be identified in public prayers, meditative dance movements, and musical cues that move the entire congregation toward a communal listening and entry into communion with a living God. . . .
.. This is how Howard Thurman describes the embodied locus of contemplation:
There is in every person an inward sea, and in that sea is an island and on that island there is an altar and standing guard before that altar is the “angel with the flaming sword.” Nothing can get by that angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the mark of your inner authority. Nothing passes . . . unless it be a part of the “fluid area of your consent.” This is your crucial link with the Eternal. 
. . As I see it, the human task is threefold.
- First, the human spirit must connect to the Eternal by turning toward God’s immanence and ineffability with yearning.
- Second, each person must explore the inner reality of his or her humanity, facing unmet potential and catastrophic failure with unmitigated honesty and grace.
- Finally, each one of us must face the unlovable neighbor, the enemy outside of our embrace, and the shadow skulking in the recesses of our own hearts.
Only then can we declare God’s perplexing and unlikely peace on earth. These tasks require a knowledge of self and others that only comes from the centering down that Thurman advocates. It is not an escape from the din of daily life; rather, it requires full entry into the fray but on different terms. . . . Always, contemplation requires attentiveness to the Spirit of God. .