Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Age of Energy

Dear Friends,

I'd like to veer back to the mainstream of American life. The basis for my thoughts lies in the perception that humanity has been steadily transitioning from a tribal consciousness towards a self-actualized consciousness. I won't dwell on the objective basis for this but I would like to state simply that advances in communication, health, education and travel are the result of and in turn have stimulated the creative thinking, dynamic energy, and heightened awareness of millions of individuals to seek a better life.

Consider all the various "freedoms" for which people have struggled, and even died for: freedom from racial prejudice, religious freedom, social injustice, economic freedom, gender equality, to name a few. Steadily throughout the world it is as if, over the last few centuries (and at an accelerating pace), people all over the world are "waking up" to their personal identity and their potential as individuals. This constrasts with the medieval or tribal mindset that our station in life is fixed by birth or circumstance (not merit), that privilege and power is inherited or appointed, and that we must fulfill our duties according to our superiors or tribal elders.

The world wide web both symbolizes and epitomizes the latest form by which information and knowledge is being made available to the general public as part of a process that has been taking place for centuries. With growing awareness and the power of technology has come both increasing compassion and instances of wholesale destruction and genocide. I would venture to speculate that, in time, compassion will grow faster than destruction, even if, by necessity, it will do so only after great suffering.

Paternalistic attitudes, such as reflected in colonialism by the Western powers, are a hold-over from the medieval mindset of monarchy and hierarchy. By this I mean the idea that the rulers or elite must look out for the interests of the unfortunate, uneducated masses who in turn are expected to serve their masters. Charity and relief work have steadily moved towards greater sensitivity to the needs of people served and away from a sense of "we know best what you need." But an awkwardness remains in the act of dispensing charity by governments and large organizations. It is the awkwardness of potential judgment, pity, and the dehumanizing impact of large scale administration of charity with its legitimate needs to assess eligibility and enforce its conditions in an effort to steward its responsibilities to the general citizenry.

Western nations may vary in the degree to which their respective governments provide health, education, and welfare benefits to their more needy citizens, but it remains a fact that the worldwide financial recession threatens to curtain their ability to continue at past levels. Thus a crises is pending whereby new approaches to social benefits may need to be tried.

I question whether charity can ever be dispensed appropriately by a government. Caring is something individuals do for one another. The relatively high level of social benefits offered by many governments creates, by necessity of administration, a culture and attitude of entitlement. No matter how loudly we may insist that every citizen has a "right" to health care, legal defense, food, or shelter we cannot mask the equally true reality (one that we take pains to teach our children) that one must take responsibility for his own actions and their consequences. No matter how much we proclaim that "all men are created equal," the fact that individuals possess a remarkably wide range of talents, energy, and atitudes shows that if this platitude has any meaning at all, it must be in the sense that we are all children of God. Reward and punishment, and truth and consequences still rule the affairs of men. To ignore the individual in dealing with people is to court failure in one's communications and joint efforts.

It seems the more societies spend on social benefits the greater the need becomes. Past a certain safety net that a society insists upon for the sake of compassion or guilty avoidance, the result must be to sap the dynamic will, initiative, responsibility, and self-respect of those whom it helps. The consequence will inexorably be to foster resentment, blame, and greater demands by those demeaned (by handouts) in a subconscious and collective attempt to affirm individual self-worth.

Individuals respond to poverty and hardship in many different ways. Some do only what they have to in order to get by. They may not even mind, especially, living in conditions others would find intolerable. Their plight may be due to injustice, abuse, a sense of hopelessness for lack of opportunities, lack of education or simply unawareness of other possibilities. For some, blaming others, including society at large, can be an excuse not to make an effort to improve oneself. For others, it might also be a mere matter of familiarity, or a habit based on the exigencies of day-to-day survival. Some even become quite clever at surviving and self-protection. Others strive arduously to improve their lot, such as parents who work hard to send their children to school and higher education. Some, though probably not as many, set about helping their fellows cope with such circumstances. A rare few become shining examples of peace and goodwill, bestowing their quiet inner peace and comfort upon any who would receive such gifts. Such straitened circumstances can bring out the best, and the worst, in human nature.

In this age when individuality, with its concomitant potential for self-initiative, self-improvement, cooperation, and compassion, is in the ascendant, it makes sense to me that government-provided social benefits emphasize and encourage self-help. Education and training (in all aspects of living, not just academic) is one of the greatest examples of how a society, through its government, can improve the standard of living of its citizens.

Why is it, then, that we bemoan a steady deterioration in the quality of that education? Is not the well meaning but blind emphasis on giving everyone the same quality of education resulting in no one getting a decent education? It strikes me, for example, that notwithstanding the obvious reasons for doing so and the good intentions behind it, that bussing children to school and providing meals via subsidized cafeterias robs parents of basic responsibilities and participation in their childrens' education and life. Though I don't know the facts it is easy to imagine that the cost of just these two aspects of social services alone is enormous and that such funds might be better employed in improving the quality of education itself. For that matter, why is education compulsory anymore? Imagine schools filled with children who actually WANT to have an education!

Obviously some families may need help to get their children fed and to school. Wouldn't this be more sensitively done in cooperation with other families and with local service organizations? Would the not cooperation needed to help families on the ground level of their neighborhood help build more viable and compassionate community? Bussing and meals is just one example. It may be an imperfect one. But I have no doubt there are others.

If the central government provided overall guidance, training, and standards for charitable work and perhaps some facilities or other infrastructure but let local organizations to work out the details and solicit funds from their various interest groups or communities, the results could only be an improvement to everyone.

Whether seeking job training, finding work, or taking responsibility for one's health, the equation for success for disadvantaged citizens is a combination of personal effort and appropriate opportunity. The ratio of self-initiative to straight charitable handout will vary widely, but it strikes me that governmental assistance should focus primarily upon people who want to improve themselves. Let charities focus on helping those who are essentially helpless or who have potential but need personal training or motivation tailored to their circumstances and tied to individual effort. For the latter, government can still have a role in funding and guiding such efforts, but it should leave the caring to caring individuals (presumably part of some NGO, local government, or community based organization).

We live in an age which some call an age of energy. It seems so obvious (as we seek new and rewewable energy sources, struggle with fatigue, memory loss, and the demands of the fast and complex pace of modern life), that helping people cope with these demands is the best social service a government, representing the will of its people, can offer. Let charity be the domain of the charitable and let charity be fostered and encouraged at all levels of civic life. Lastly, the individual is the core motivating energy behind society and improvements to society. To ignore Individual consciousness is to ignore the seed of life itself. One size will never fit all! Let us foster creativity, talent, leadership, and compassion in individuals and we will all benefit.