The State of Our Union - Who among us do we see?

As our society fragments and people retreat into close-knit circles of family and friends, we must wrestle with a fundamental question. The question is where do we fit, and thus who among us do we see? Right now, many of us believe we fit into close-knit circles, along with others who are similar to us. When people come together, it is often for the purpose of pursuing their pre-set agenda, without even considering at times the views or needs or aspirations of others.

We can go about our lives and almost be able to shut everything and everyone out that we do not want to see.

Who among us do we see? This is, at its essence, a Biblical question from the prophets, and it still calls us today.

I have been thinking about this question more and more as I travel the country and listen to people’s stories and try to find meaningful approaches for creating an alternate path for our public life and politics.

We are up against some powerful forces. Our economy has gone global and so too have many of its jobs. Many of us are more “connected” globally than ever before. In fact, just a week or so ago, I was talking with someone from San Jose who noted that some people in that region seem more concerned with happenings in India than they do with people who live around the corner.

Another concern is the increasing fragmentation of the news. Now, many people simply seek out the niche news broadcast (such as FOX or CNN), the niche talk radio program, and the niche print publication that affirms their existing views. Indeed, many of us are aggregating our own news through these various sources and through customized on-demand Internet services. It all adds up to being able to hear and watch and see only those things you want to know about and to bypass those stories, events and issues that make one uncomfortable, or challenge our chosen worldview.

And yet, Yeats put it well when he wrote that to be a whole person we must engage with the “necessary other” – the other voice, the other perspective, the other hope… the other person.

Isn’t this what the response to 9/11 and the recent Gulf Coast disaster called us to do – respond to someone and something different from ourselves? If we are to understand and act on such challenges as inadequate public schools, or poverty, or hatred and bigotry, we must see others – to understand their plight, to figure out a new path, to bring ourselves to act. How else can we know about matters beyond ourselves?

I have come to believe that one of our greatest challenges today is that we have closed off ourselves to others, especially to others who are different from us. Our fragmentation, our lack of trust in politics, our retreat from public life, has left us disconnected.

If we are to imagine and act for the public good, which is what I believe we must come to do if we are to address our core concerns, then we must find ways to bridge the divides that have been created in our modern life.

The resources are there – we can put the Internet to good use by transcending boundaries rather than deepening existing dividing lines; we can pursue civic engagement efforts – like those The Harwood Institute has done in Mobile or Orlando – that enable people to see beyond themselves and into the lives of others; we can create new boundary spanning organizations, as evidenced by the Institute’s work with the Nevada Community Foundation, so that there are positive forces within communities to break down walls and work across silos.

We will not reverse the powerful conditions that are reshaping our society; advances in technology will always be with us, and globalization continues to march on. Instead of fighting against these changes, we must marshal these forces, along with our own creativity and resources, to shape the kind of public life and politics we all seek.

But let us be clear: neither these forces nor our own abilities can be marshaled from within the walls of our close-knit circles. Rather, we must seek to know and understand “the necessary other” beyond ourselves, learning from their experiences and teaching from our own. Every voice, including our own, brings power to public life, but we cannot hear that which we do not wish to know.

Tomorrow: Where is our pursuit of “happiness” leading us?