The dynamics that hold us back from being an enlightened, equitable, and safe society interrelate at various touch points. None of them can be solved in a vacuum, and any action taken to address them will have either a positive or negative impact on something else. It might be a minimal impact, but something, somewhere will shift nonetheless. Just as the body is a living system where the organs, tissues, arteries, blood, and bones have primary functions while functioning interdependently, so is a nation a living system where the interdependent components have a lot to say about the health and prospects of one another.
It begins, in my opinion, with electoral politics. With very few exceptions, only the wealthy or those well-positioned to tap into others’ wealth are able to win elections beyond the county level because of the massive campaign scopes we have permitted and encouraged. We have no idea how many thousands of individuals with talent, innovative ideas, and altruistic intentions are simply precluded from even considering running for office. There’s little chance of “Mr. Smith” going to Washington (rest in peace, Jimmy Stewart). The rich and well-connected make and repeal laws that ultimately serve one another, and the rest of us have to make the best of the leftover carnage.
A large percentile of this “tapped wealth” for political campaigns comes from corporations and their tentacled representatives, which have vested interests in electing individuals favorable towards their industries and pet projects. The energy and resources that big business spends on lobbyists and donations to political candidates precludes them from investing more in their own organizations, impacting job creation and the salary structure of the jobs that do exist within the company. This also leaves less money to spend on employee health care and other benefits that impact an employee’s overall quality of life. Finally, the millions of dollars poured into political coffers could be invested in worthwhile endeavors such as education reform, community redevelopment through accountable non-profits, scientific research, the arts, environmental protection, and technological advancement, all of which help to foster a better-equipped workforce and attractive communities in which prospective employees choose to live. All of which could, ironically, increase profit margins in a more compassionate way.
This lack of meaningful political opportunity for the masses, and dearth (not complete absence, but certainly dearth) of community investment from wealthy corporations, limits the breadth and depth of new experiments in our educational systems, causing the vast majority of public schools to operate on the same tired, outdated mode that has been thrust upon countless generations. A one-size-fits-all lecture, data-dumping type of teaching style continues to dominate the classroom, marginalizing a fair amount of young persons who simply don’t learn as effectively in that manner. Montessori schools have much to teach public schools about relevant education, as I’ve learned through my spouse and bonus daughter. High schools are moving in the right direction by creating “mini majors” for students and international baccalaureate programs are a huge plus, but millions of students still feel like misfits within the confines of traditional schooling.
The combined deficits of these first three dynamics–electoral politics, corporate citizenship, and relevant education–have a disproportionate, negative impact on the poor, especially the minorities who compose a large percentile of the poor (http://prospect.org/article/missing-white-poor) and bear the added onus of ingrained biases. Owning little voice in changing the laws of the land, living in unsafe and depressing neighborhoods, and unable to experience educational approaches tailored toward their specific needs and latent potential, they are more prone to being both victims and perpetrators of crime. This has led law enforcement agencies to ingrain an inherent bias, assuming guilt before innocence and reaction before intervention, leading to tragic police altercations and creating an ever-widening trust gap between the authorities and minorities–especially African-Americans.
These deltas also impact how the poor, including immigrants, are unfairly victimized by legislation. Court fees, for example, are usually assessed upon those who are in some kind of trouble with the law. Most of these persons are also suffering economically, and therefore adversely impacted by the fees more than someone with a well-paying job who can absorb the hit without sacrificing house payments, health insurance, food, and other necessities. Insufficient or complete lack of health insurance hinders persons from receiving preventative care, and those who do receive care are sometimes saddled with hospital bills for years and years. Why are hospitals allowed to garnish a portion of the paychecks of their debtor patients? Laws allow them to do so. Who writes and passes these laws? Elected officials. Who gets elected? You see my point, I hope.
The disadvantaged position of these individuals also makes them more likely to suffer the flip side of our nation’s embrace of the right to bear arms. Fire arms are ubiquitous in the United States, through legal or illegal means. The more you live in poverty and in marginalized community, the more likely you are to interact with individuals who have resorted to violent means to deal with their situations or emotions. There are more than 10,000 fatal gun shots fired in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/homicide.htm) There is inconclusive data on how many of these are fired by police officers (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/09/08/how-many-police-shootings-a-year-no-one-knows/), but civilian on civilian gun homicides certainly represent the lion’s share of shootings. Yet, what tills the soil for crime in the first place? And given that our political, business, educational, and legal landscapes help to engender such deepening cycles of poverty and hopelessness, is it really prudent for guns to be so readily available? Is it good for all Americans, or just some? It’s great that you get to go hunting as a law-abiding citizen, but you can’t ignore the suffering that gun proliferation causes every day across our land. (Well, maybe you can, but how do you live with yourself?)
Many of the same individuals who are making decisions with huge political economic, and social ramifications are also deeply immersed in our country’s theistic religious institutions. (The monks and ascetics are definitely not running the show, says this former mainline Christian pastor.) If they aren’t on the deacon boards, personnel committees, or finance committees, they are underwriting church or synagogue buildings. They are running and funding most religious schools. They are also spending enormous amounts of money and time propping up their own religious brands, rather than collaborating with one another to solve common human problems that result from all of the dynamics I’ve already mentioned. They do many good works, for sure, but these are outweighed by the behaviors they perpetuate that help cause the conditions that necessitate the good works in the first place. Our fleeting religious works make us feel better, but these are symptomatic treatments at best when so much of the body is diseased.
The proof of our spirituality ultimately shows up in our degrees of compassion and kindness toward any being who is suffering, human and non-human, as well as toward nature itself. The value we place in the lives of minorities or immigrants, for example, is a direct reflection of our world views that we practice and cultivate each day. The manner in which we steward animals and other species is directly tied to our character, whether we recognize this or not. This has implications for the “little” choices we make: Do we recycle or not recycle? Do we get our pets from stores or animal shelters? Do we squash a bug as soon as we see it in our home or simply in our way, or do we facilitate its freedom?
The manner in which we rationalize the above systemic issues, tolerating some and criticizing others–sometimes, in a contradictory fashion–shows up in how we handle the celebrities that walk or hide among us. Political, film, television, Internet, literary, and recording stars are idolized and then ruthlessly attacked when found to have been accused of some egregious act. The same is done with athletes, many of whom escaped impoverished situations because of their gifted athleticism but lack maturity and life skills. We employ an array of double-standards concerning the famous and the infamous, and get into heated debates at the water cooler, dinner table, and on the sordid walls of social media.
There is a collective, often dysfunctional American culture, then, that we are endlessly trying to export to the rest of the world while demanding that it adhere to our “values.” There is no shortage of nations who mistreat people to degrees we cannot even fathom, and this helps us justify the good and the bad of our domestic dynamics: “At least we aren’t…” “We’d be much worse off if we lived in…”
But how much more fruitful could our efforts be if we addressed our own inequities more thoroughly; if we were willing to take the medicine that might cure us of our own chronic hypocrisy? We could be leaps and bounds ahead of where we are now in every discipline, unleashing all of the potential found within every American community, within every shade of individual, if we were truly committed to “liberty and justice for all.”
How much more effective could each of us be as individuals if we were willing to spend more time honestly looking inward, instead of constantly reaching outward with demands, hopes, and dependency? The introspective individual who is committed to personal growth is more likely to love and serve his or her neighborhood and larger urban community. These are the persons that we ultimately want in positions of power, in order to impact all of the dynamics described above.
The narcissist is a frightening individual indeed, and the condition of our nation bears scary evidence that narcissism runs wild in every key institution that we hold dear. The only lasting cure to narcissism is mindfulness, and that can’t be legislated or manufactured. It most be authentically chosen and practiced, one person at at time, one moment at a time.
Until a critical mass of individuals awakens to its own self-centeredness and distractions, broad-based action steps that foster a sustainable, compassionate humanity will remain fleeting.