The notion of personal sovereignty is an enormously powerful idea – and a potentially dangerous one. It signals to us that we as individuals can go our own way, do our own thing, and be our own person. Or, as the U.S. Army used to say, “Be all you can be!” The idea is deeply embedded in the current definition of consumerism that has grabbed hold of the American imagination. Nowadays we consumers expect to get what we want, when we want it, at the highest quality and the lowest cost – and if we don’t like something, we can return it without any questions asked.
Self-fulfillment has been part of the American landscape since our nation’s founding. But I often wonder if Jefferson had the same notion of the “pursuit of happiness” when he wrote that phrase into the Declaration of Independence as we do today. As we all know, Jefferson had a strong belief in the role of “informed citizens” in society. Take apart that phrase and you end up with two key ideas: individuals who see themselves as more than free-lancing consumers and who make it their business to be engaged in the larger society around them.
Today, the phrase “pursuit of happiness” is often the clarion call for individual self-fulfillment, at times without any regard to the larger society. Indeed, we are being socially groomed to expect to come into the public square and make claims and demands for our own interests without concern for others. But this pursuit only leads us to hyper-individualism, self-absorption, even selfishness.
As Americans repeatedly pointed out in my new book, Hope Unraveled: The People’s Retreat and Our Way Back, too many of us are free-lancing our way through society, allowing our love affair with consumerism and personal sovereignty to crowd out the necessary time and space to be attached to public life and politics. We have retreated into close-knit circles of families and friends, often simply to pursue individual happiness.
I remember as I was traveling the country in recent years and talking with Americans, I would ask people to give me a motto for their community and the nation. One person said to me, “I’ve got mine and to heck with you.” Another said, “I’m for me and you’re for you!” And still another person gave me this one, “I’m for me and you’re for me!”
Perhaps it goes without saying that over any extended stretch of time it is impossible for people to go it alone – even with the most remarkable circle of family and friends. The webs of entanglement in our interdependent lives will sooner or later stare us in the face. Our jobs, our safety, our schools, our health care, our very quality of life are all inextricably intertwined.
People are by nature social animals. There is an emptiness that we all encounter when we peel ourselves away from others and choose to go it alone. We all know that in our heart of hearts. No consumer product or vacation home or gated wall can protect us from that universal truth.
People who have been part of something larger than themselves will tell you that they gained from those experiences an incredible sense of belonging, a deeper belief in the power of people to act together, and even a sense of happiness. And while their happiness may have been tied to some personal achievement, they will almost always say that it was also a result of their connection to others.
Like I said, personal sovereignty has always been part of the American experience; but that alone will not create the pathway for each of us being better people or to creating a better society.
So, I would ask each of us to consider this question: What does happiness really mean to each of us and where can we find it? And what is the relationship of our answer to the state of the union?
The phrase “state of the union” suggests that there is a coming together of disparate pieces – some of those pieces are our 50 states, others are comprised of we the people as individuals. As the president’s State of the Union Address approaches, I would ask him to ask us to step forward as more than individual consumers in the pursuit of own happiness. It’s time to call ourselves back to public life – and to each other. And I would ask each of us to think about Jefferson’s words, and realize that greater personal happiness will come by being part of stronger communities and a stronger nation.
Personal sovereignty cannot fulfill our deepest wants.