The nation is reeling from hurricanes, earthquakes, the Great Recession, two wars, and severe public sector budget cuts, among other challenges. A broken politics sits at the heart of our inability to move forward. But beneath that is something even more important and vital to our long-term health: people clinging to their sense of humanity and dignity. I recognize that these words – “humanity and dignity” – may seem too lofty or abstract to gain much traction in today’s rough-and-tumble world. They don’t serve to score any political points, strike fear into anyone’s heart, or demonize anyone. And I realize that there are far easier topics for me to choose to write about today, including the natural and man-made disasters I referred to above.
But as I travel the country, people want to discuss something deeper, closer to their everyday lives, and more significant to their futures. Most fundamentally, I hear people talking about the need to restore a basic sense of trust in society. There are too many false promises amid the relatively few moments when people feel they are actually being squared with. People want to know they can rely on one another – their neighbors, leaders, and the organizations that purport to serve them.
Furthermore, I hear people trying to find a way to broaden their circles of compassion. They believe we have lost an ability to see and hear one another and thus the ability to care for one another. And yet, how can we expand our circles of compassion when so many of us are circling the wagons out of fear?
And I hear people saying that we must demonstrate that we still have the individual and collective ability to get things done. Here, people’s concerns are less about how big and grand the actions are, than about restoring faith and confidence that we can, together, do something.
Of course, there are many pockets where good things are getting done; where effective programs are being implemented; and where people are working night and day to make a difference. For instance, just this weekend, I was struck by how well so many public officials responded to Hurricane Irene; to me, many of their actions were smart and brave and knew no partisan boundaries.
So, then, what is my concern today? It is that people are telling us something that we must hear: notions of trust, compassion, making good on promises and pledges, faith and confidence, and a sense of possibility, these are all basic human desires. They transcend who wins particular elections, the level of campaign contributions, or the amount of press a new proposal gets. The challenge is to make space for people to express these human desires; to create genuine ways for people to make them real in their lives.
So when you hear a politician give a speech, or another organization tries to ‘mobilize’ a community for action, or there’s some new civic engagement initiative, ask yourself: How does this effort reflect people’s yearning to reclaim a sense of humanity and dignity? And then ask: What am I doing in my daily life that enables someone to reclaim their sense of humanity and dignity? It is such basic, but important, tests I believe we must pass if the actions we take are to address the core of people’s concerns today.