The company was convivial, the food delicious, the candlelight and music divine. Then one guest, just making conversation, began to inventory recent outrages from the powers-that-be: did we hear about fraud and callousness in this government program? About this attack on civil liberties? About this scandal in high places? Air began to leak out of the room as smiles turned to frowns, as heads that a few moments earlier had nodded happily, shedding light in all directions, suddenly turned heavy, needing the support of both hands.
My husband put it very well. We (we progressive types) are like someone who takes a clock apart, he said, explaining how every mechanism works, then leaves it lying on the table in pieces. Help! What time is it?
We have been playing “Can You Top This?” with scandal, injustice and wickedness for so long, you’d think we would have understood by now the addictive and disabling effects of that conversational gambit. I can only speculate that we keep doing it because—like the man who was asked why he kept hitting himself on the head with a hammer—it feels so good to stop. What time is it? It’s time to stop.
Let me make myself clear with two stipulations: First, anyone in the plugged-in world who cares about social issues has tremendous access to news not only of outrages but of blessings. We could spend our lives downloading the real story of absolutely everything from numberless Internet sources created by people who troll the zeitgeist for just such information. It makes no positive contribution to the world or to our own morale and capacity for action to rehearse these reports every time we gather.
Second, I am not repeating the tired old charge that “we” have no ideas. To the contrary, I am pleased that there are so many democratic think tanks and policy wonks. We have no shortage of interesting proposals for alternatives to current broken or unworkable programs.
But what we don’t have, so far, is a commitment to create alternatives strong and widespread enough to ensure that these interesting and promising ideas will be implemented.
It isn’t because we lack the means. The uncanny truth is that despite so many efforts to discourage real democracy, we in this country still have easy access to all the instruments of democratic participation, and tremendous liberty to use them. Isn’t it silly that so often we choose sit on our hands railing against the people who want us to forget that? Aren’t we giving them what they want?
Some might say our disability is a matter of organization. Certainly, I’ve spent as much time as anyone on the postprandial bumming of my friends over the state of progressive social organization. But from what I have seen of world events, the types of social change that matter most are less the product of highly structured effort than of the gathering force of subtle shifts in consciousness, almost by osmosis.
Consider that while huge feats of sustained organization created cadres of leaders focused on the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid and the Velvet Revolution, even those brilliant leaders could never have devised a phone tree big enough to mobilize the millions who turned out to support social change once the old order began to sink behind history’s horizon.
I think Malcolm Gladwell was onto something in his articulation of “the tipping point,” whereby 20 percent is a sufficient mass of support to tip the other 80 percent of a population in a new direction. In the development of any world-shaking change, those on the leading edge of an emergent awareness generate ideas, support the Great Conversation that puts those ideas in circulation, express their own sense of urgent possibility, find ways to sustain their spirits, click their heels together three times, and eventually the tipping point is reached.
If this is true, then we help to make change even when we sit around the dining room table sharing our thoughts. That’s why my second New Year’s wish for you and myself is this: that when we are feeling good in each other’s company, enjoying the many pleasures—the braiding of thoughts and opening of hearts—of the meeting of true minds, that we choose to give our conscious attention to putting the clock back together, rather than picking it apart. That we don’t fall into the old game of “Can You Top This?” but instead use our big brains and powerful creative energies to play “Imagine This” with the full force of our social imaginations.
I know New Year’s resolutions generally have a brief shelf-life, so how about this: just try it for a month. What can it hurt? As they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Try it and pay attention to whether you feel better. Pay attention to whether you have more energy for social creativity. If the results are as I anticipate, what begins in conscious effort can become second nature, and won’t that be fun?
All blessings for a year of creativity, love, light, peace and prosperity, dear readers!