“It’s A Wonderful Life” starring James Stewart has a happy ending in the singing of "Auld Lang Syne." All of us who have endured the year 2020 long for a cup of kindness as we enter 2021.
Robert Putnam’s book “Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” came out last October. I love that book because it documents what was good about the “good old days.” There is a lot of resistance in today’s polarized world even to the idea of a time when things were “good.” Biden and Trump pledges to “restore the soul of America” and “make America great again” are looking backward to a time when the soul of America could be identified, and there was some agreement on what constituted greatness.
Before the November election I was explaining the book to a woman from western North Dakota and she asked, “whose side is he on?” I tried to explain that Putnam is a researcher who teaches at Harvard. His previous book “Bowling Alone” documents social equity in communities. In that measurement, North Dakota scored in the top of the country. Our progressive past resulted in North Dakota having high education achievement scores, relatively low crime rates (before the Bakken oil boom), and significant membership in churches and civic organizations. I tried to explain to her how church attendance, membership in fraternal organizations, and civic engagement have dramatically fallen, all across the country, and here in North Dakota. “Putnam,” I said, “wasn’t on anybody's side, he is simply trying to explain what it was like when the United States was much less polarized and had a stronger sense of being in community.”
The American people have accepted a simplistic explanation for reality. The 2020 election, to many people, was as simple as “are you for Trump or you are against him?" But 2021 is not about Trump, and it is not even about Biden. The year 2021 needs to be about what we want America to be, not about what it has been. It is not about the personality differences among people, but the values they hold in common. Things we really value -- not political ideologies or personalities that mean little to us personally.
2021 is a new year with great challenges and both political parties running on empty. But empty is not a bad thing. Emptiness is sometimes a good thing. The psychiatrist Scott Peck describes the four stages of achieving community as 1. Pseudo community (everything is going to be fine), 2. Chaos, (active, intentional disorder), 3. Emptiness (physically and emotionally exhausted, nothing left), and 4. Community, (where 2 + 2 becomes 5.) Emptiness leads to truth telling, such as “here is what I have always wanted, and I don’t care anymore what anyone else thinks.” Truth telling is contagious, and people recognize they want the same things and enter community.
America needs to empty itself of its rhetoric and corrupt systems which oppress and fragment people into exploitable demographics. Max Ehrmann wrote the poem “Desiderata” in the 1920s. Desiderata is Latin for “things desired.” Please check out the entire poem. I think of Ehrmann’s admonition, “But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.” I have way too many dark imaginings that I need to empty in 2021.
Ehrmann concludes the poem, “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world, be cheerful. Strive to be happy.” Wishing you a cup of kindness and a happy new year.
Bill Patrie has been recognized for his work as a cooperative developer by the National Farmers Union, the Association of Cooperative Educators and the National Cooperative Business Association.