I’ve held a set of core values constant throughout my life – for example, the importance of social justice and the need to do more than talk about it. There is nothing ephemeral about these values. They are at the central to my being. They are how I know myself and how others know me. They connect me to my parents and probably to their parents; to my wife and my children; and to my friends and colleagues; they are evident in my past, and present, and hopefully my future as well.
At the same time, the world and I keep changing, and often these changes challenge the viability and applicability of my core values. There are times when the idea that “all are created equal”—and will be given equal opportunity to thrive—seems alive, reflecting positive, forward-moving cultural and political transformations that we have made. There are other times when these ideals seem like distant, almost childlike, dreams. These different perspectives don’t rest only on the “evidence” of social change at any given moment. They are also responsive to my own moods and my perception of how well I am able stay the course of my cherished values, what adaptations I need and can make.
Ultimately, there is a tension between constancy and change. How much can we change without losing integrity, an enduring sense of who we are in the world, and how much can we stay who we have been without becoming rigid.
Oddly, constancy and change are essential allies to one another. All species, the human one, too, must adapt to environmental change in order to maintain their stable identity. Trees adapt to soil and wind changes. Frogs, wolves, and insects change in response to their contexts. In biological parlance, morphostasis (change) serves homeoststasis (stability). We change in order to attempt to remain essentially the same. So it is with people and their social context.
During the last month, I have begun a series of interviews with elders (at least 70 years +) who have sustained their efforts over many years on behalf of what we can roughly call social justice. They still serve as leaders in their communities. I’d like to begin sharing some observations about how they have managed to keep the faith.
There are many strategies that people build in order to navigate between their values and their lived experience – in the language above, between the demands to stay constant and to change. Let’s consider these three: Some resist change and build a stable world that supports the constancy of their values. Others deepen their inner convictions in order to neutralize changes in the world that might contradict those convictions. A third group acknowledges and credits the changes “out there,” and develops new strategies to meet a changing world. All three approaches serve the stability of the values.
Stability in time and space. Some of the elders have created what looks like a timeless universe. I met a Boston couple, for instance, who began their muscular community activism half a century ago, and continue to this day at the center of a strong civic association. They have retained many of the same friends, associates—and maybe even the same adversaries. For example, those who would “gentrify” their neighborhoods by bringing ungainly buildings and outside businesses into residential areas and forcing out the more vulnerable older members. The couple live in the same house and others know where to find them. When I ask if they have had to change over the years, they say, simply, “No.” They like who they are and they still fit in their milieu. From my perspective, I see admirable a wonderful power and efficacy in their stable ways.
Deepening inner conviction to fight outer change. When the world is more than usually challenging to our values, when it seems that social justice will be subverted at every turn, as it is under the current Republican reign, it is easy to doubt, to wonder if we can hold onto those values. One strategy for doing so is to insulate our convictions. We do that in two ways: first, by not measuring their successful application day by day; second, by deepening them so that they can remain almost untouched by current affairs.
In the past, the goals of social justice seemed good, important, but now they take on an emotional urgency and depth that is closer to religious experience. With this kind of transformation, our relationship to the values changes from ‘doing good’ to a ‘calling,’ a way to live and work that defines us at the well of our being. A extreme illustration of that kind of change might be John Brown, an abolitionist, who became so convinced that social and political change would not happen through normal processes that he became what, today, we would call a terrorist.
Generally, though, faced with great odds to realizing social justice, we adopt a more faith-based feeling and attitude. We will continue to act for social justice even if we fail for the moment. We will act because we “must.” We are internally comforted by what feels like a certainty that may once have depended on practical accomplishments but now looks and feels more like hope, and faith.
For the religious-minded, God has chosen their path and they are servants of God’s plan. Prayer and the company of other congregants help them see the plan clearly and return to it when they have strayed. Secular believers often see social necessities and practical plans with greater force and clarity. “This is where we must go. These are the programs we must build.” Some see that pathway with a passion that might look to outsiders very much like religious belief.
Recently, I spoke with a highly successful and practical business woman. In retirement, her commitment to human — and especially women’s — rights has only grown stronger. She calls herself an optimist. As nonprofit leader and mentor, her job is to pass along her optimism, her belief in social justice, as though from her DNA to the next generation’s DNA. The image is visceral, almost literal with her. If you look closely, her internalized feel for the march of history is not so different than a divine plan. I had long identified with this kind of vision.
Adapting strategies to remain internally stable. As I have aged, my own commitment to social justice has required more effort; it no longer is carried along without tending, as though by a deep terrestrial stream. During my early years, that sense of easily hewing to my values was accompanied by a belief that their realization was mostly a matter of destiny, with a little help from committed citizens. This narrative has been shared by millions of others, beginning with the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century: The human condition would improve by regulating the otherwise unruly conditions of a laissez-faire economy and greedy capitalists, and by implementing safeguards to protect the health and well-being of common people. We needed only to devise ways to promote the “greatest good for the greatest number.”
Those beliefs presumed that human beings are essentially good. Free from social and psychological duress, we would almost invariably act generously towards our fellow human beings. But that undergirding assumption of mine has been eroded. I have become more skeptical about human nature. During the last decade or two, I have come to believe, with the Founding Fathers, that human beings are not so benign. They have good and generous impulses, but they are also greedy and tribal, often pitting their own group against others. “America First” is only one expression of this inclination.
I see now that people are anxious and defensive about their safety and property; and, when they even imagine others will attack, they attack first. Where once I lived in the world of Rousseau I have become a disciple of Thomas Hobbes. Where I believed that the freer the populace, the more generous and peaceful it would become, I now believe in the need for restraints on this rougher human animal that I’ve come to know. I believe in structure, checks and balances, careful organization—a Constitutional form of government—to guard against our baser impulses and provide room for our better angels to emerge.
In other words, the prime value of justice, learned at my parents’ dinner table, has persisted. I recognize myself in it. But, with my darkening world view, I no longer believe in the manifest destiny of social justice. There is no plan that I see. There is only our own, unending efforts on behalf of our ideals that will make a difference. I see that new strategies and structures are essential to putting my values into effect. ———————————————————
These are some early forays into making meaning from my interviews and personal musings. My hope is that they provide a framework that helps you see a little more clearly how you have adapted to current events, and that you will share those efforts with me.