Archives for category: community

Many ways to express citizenship, an incomplete list (add your ideas):

  • Read reputable news outlets
  • Examine the sources of news that you come into contact with
  • Read news outlets you disagree with
  • Read LOCAL news outlets
  • Talk with a friend or family member about their views; share yours
  • Attend civic and community meetings
  • Vote
  • Encourage others to vote
  • Protest
  • Protect others from injustice when you see it
  • Participate in dialogue programs on issues
  • Serve on a jury
  • Sign a petition
  • Discuss current events with your family
  • Read candidate web sites
  • Write opinion pieces and letters to news outlets
  • Start a blog to express your views
  • Volunteer as a poll worker on election day
  • Attend local government or school board meetings
  • Sign up to participate on a volunteer board or commission in local government
  • Run for office against someone whom you disagree with, or for an open seat
  • Learn about how your local government works
  • Donate funds to a candidate or issue
  • Talk to neighbors about a local problem or issue
  • Work with neighbors to improve local conditions
  • Volunteer for a political candidate or issue campaign
  • Start or participate in Neighborhood Watch
  • Attend local civic commission meetings

There are so many ways to act with others for the good of our local areas, our states, and our nation.

Also see: Civics ‘TQM’

Some of my friends may have heard me refer to “machinebrain” and “gardenbrain” in conversation over the past few months.

This idea is taken from Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer’s The Gardens of Democracy, in which they argue that a new way of thinking about social systems needs to be developed. Liu and Hanauer contrast a mechanistic “machinebrain” way of thinking with an organic “gardenbrain” way of thinking.

I have found the idea to be helpful to me in understanding and sorting the mindsets of people with whom I am talking. I also discuss this in another piece about “the apparatus.”

A “machinebrain”-oriented person will often talk about tools, processes, and techniques, and they will often see deliberative politics in these terms. A “gardenbrain” person sees things as emergent, growing.

While there are important benefits to each way of seeing things, the latter is more in line with an “ecological” view of community politics. I have found it very hard to convey my understanding of politics to people who have a “machinebrain” outlook. The terms I use become assimilated. “Yes, I get it. I do that too!” they may say, but it is clear we are talking about different things. They think I am talking about process. The frequency with which I encounter “machinebrain” is sometimes surprising to me. I mentally seek out “gardenbrain” people, because I feel like we have the most in common intellectually, at least when it comes to talking about politics.

As I reflect, however, I have come to believe that the “gardenbrain” perspective is also not quite apt. It still assumes that the whole thing can be managed somehow.

Here is how Liu and Hanauer describe the two mindsets:

“Machinebrain sees the world and democracy as a series of mechanisms-clocks and gears, perpetual motion machines, balances and counterbalances. Machinebrain requires you to conceive of the economy as perfectly efficient and automatically self-correcting. Machinebrain presuppose stability and predictability, and only grudgingly admits the need for correction. Even the word commonly used for such correction- “regulation”- is mechanical in origin and regrettable connotation.

“Gardenbrain sees the world and democracy as an entwined set of ecosystems-sinks and sources of trust and social capital, webs of economic growth, networks of behavioral contagion. Gardenbrain forces you to conceive of the economy as man-made and effective only if well-constructed and well cared-for. Gardenbrain presupposes instability and unpredictability, and thus expects a continuous need for seeding, feeding, and weeding ever-changing systems. To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend. It is to accept responsibility for nurturing the good growth and killing the bad. Tending and regulating thus signify the same work, but tending frames the work as presumptively necessary and beneficial rather than as something to be suffered.

“Machinebrain treats people as cogs: votes to be collected by political machines; consumes to be manipulated by marketing machines; employees to be plugged into industrial machines. It is a static mindset of control and fixity, and is the basis of most of our inherited institutions, from schools to corporations to prisons.

“Gardenbrain sees people as interdependent creators of dynamic world: our emotions affect each other; our personal choices cascade into public patterns, which can be shaped but rarely controlled. It is a dynamic mindset of influence and evolution, of direction without control, and is the basis of our future.

“Machinebrain allows you to rationalize atomized selfishness and a neglect of larger problems. It accepts social ills like poverty, environmental degradation, and ignorance as the inevitable outcome of an efficient marketplace. It is fatalistic and reductionist, treating change as an unnecessary and risky deviation from the norm.

“Gardenbrain recognizes such social ills and the shape of our society as the byproduct of man-made arrangements. It is evolutionary and holistic, treating change as the norm, essential and full of opportunity. It leads you to acknowledge that human societies thrive only through active gardening.”

In their understanding of “gardenbrain,” the gardener is still in charge. She or he must work organically, with the natural inclinations of the elements of the garden — but she or he is still the gardener. They are tending.

I would say I see community as broader than that. It is not a garden, but a forest. Larger than any one gardener is likely to affect singlehandedly.

b99bc0a942c8981ac8bd837cab9f9544I am beginning to think of this approach as “forestbrain.” And I think of the relationship that someone might have to such a forest as akin to how a ranger thinks of her or his role. In a forest, there are some built areas (a fire ring at a campsite), and there may be some areas that need tending (a denuded meadow being brought back) — but the overall thing is larger than any of these individual efforts. It is an inherently open system that reacts dynamically and on which people may act not so much from outside but from within.

 

The story of Tom Newman and the Village of Hawk Creek gives a good example of “complementary production” (the kind I was trying to describe here).

There is a man, Tom Newman, in Cleveland, Tennessee who has spent years slowly gathering five frontier log cabins to his property and turning it into a kind of museum:

Over a period of more than 40 years, Newman purchased five log cabins, carefully taking each one apart, moving them to his property and meticulously putting them back together again.

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Photo William Wright

Not only is he interested in capturing and preserving the life of colonists on the frontier of Tennessee, Newman said he wants to share a message with today’s youth.

“I want to show young people the skills and the hard work that it took the early settlers to build their house, to build their home,” Newman said. “I took those logs down, moved them in here and put them back up. That’s hard work! But that’s nothing compared to what those pioneers had to live with. I think young people need to know a little bit about that, if they can. This land was built on hard work.”

The default is to think of “schools” as being in charge of schooling students. (In fact we even call them “learners.”) If instead we think of “education of youth,” and not “schooling,” as a multifaceted and community-wide challenge, that will necessarily involve a wide array of actors, then possibilities open up. You will then look for solutions that involve more than just institutions (“schools”) and professionals (“educators” and administrators) and that are likely to involve complementary actions. Hawk Creek is one such part of a community response to the challenge.

Note that Newman is doing this thing because he is interested, but he is importantly connecting with others in the community and he sees it as an educational resource. The people of Cleveland, TN have an educational resource now that they did not have. Institutions called “schools” can now imagine new ways to, potentially, “teach” history.

In my household, November 18 is referred to as “You People Day.” We celebrate it.

Here is how it came about. My stepfather is an attorney. A long time ago, he was working at a mid-size firm. He and a few of the partners and associates decided they wanted to strike off on their own and start their own firm. The day came when they had to announce their intentions to the founder. He exploded and went on a diatribe that my stepfather describes in epic terms.

You People Day

You People Day

“I don’t know what you people are thinking. You people are betraying me. You people are going to fail utterly and you people will come crawling back.” The exact words are lost in the mists of time, but two things remain: The sentiment, which was clear, and the repeated use of that phrase, “you people.”

I know that today the phrase has a negative set of connotations that invoke race and ethnicity. It was not meant that way, but it was meant derisively and critically.

My stepfather’s new firm thrived and prospered. They came to know the day they decided to set up shop as “You People Day” as an ironic point of pride.

Knowing this background made it possible for me, many years later in 2003, to take action on a dream I have had since my youth. I quit my job and struck out on my own. November 18 was the day my arrangements were finalized.

I did not have a detailed plan and it was risky. But my little enterprise thrived well enough that I held up my end when it came to supporting our family. And with some pride I came to think of November 18 as “You People Day.”

Almost ten years after my own You People Day, I went back into the organizational world and took a traditional job. I love my position and it affords me the opportunity to do important work on a platform that I did not have otherwise.

But I admit I miss the sense of self-satisfaction I got from being an independent worker, foraging for my own sustenance and thriving in my own way.

And so, even though I am no longer an independent worker, I celebrate You People Day.

Yesterday I posted a brief message on Facebook. “Strongly considering deleting all social media apps in order to limit distracting use. Thoughts?” This generated some conversation and I thought I would update my friends. As I began to write a new post, it became lengthy so I thought I would put it here.

Firstly, I realize that my original note was a little unclear. I am not considering deleting my Facebook account entirely. I tried that once. It lasted a week. The connections I have and can maintain through Facebook are too important to me to abandon — and I found that they do not simply continue through other means. There is something that Facebook adds to my life that does not come from other things. Something important: wide-ranging social connection.

Secondly, the above paragraph makes something else clear that I had not meant to be vague about. I am talking about Facebook here. I don’t really struggle with other social media platforms. Twitter, Instagram, and  LinkedIn are not the same kinds of sirens that Facebook is. I know others differ but for me that’s the case.

But I do struggle with not letting Facebook use overtake other productive pursuits and push them out. Note that I am counting Facebook as a productive thing for me to be doing. Yes I waste time on it, but overall it is a value-add. I just need to find a good way to keep it in perspective.

So, to be clear, my thought was that if I delete the app from my phone, and only use Facebook on a computer, then this might help me keep my online work in balance. However, there was something about that solution that seemed unsatisfactory to me, which was why I was merely “considering” it and didn’t just do it.

In the first place, if my worry is that I may be pushing out productive pursuits, for instance writing, research, and other business correspondence — why would I require that the machine I use for Facebook be the same one I use for those other things? It’s kind of bonkers when you look at it like that. In the second place, using Facebook on my phone is precisely the use case that makes the most sense if what I value in the network is easy, friction-free and wide-ranging light connections with people. I can dip in and out in odd moments, when I have some spare attention, wherever that happens to be. That’s actually one would imagine one should use Facebook.

downloadIn the conversation that followed my note, a potential halfway-measure arose: turning off all notifications for the Facebook app. (I use iOS so this would be in Settings=>Notifications and I would just disable all notifications.) This way, the app would be available to me on my phone, but every time I look at the screen I would not be greeted by some little red number (a “badge”) inviting me to open the app and mess around with it. I would have to make a decision to open the app and check it to see what had happened since I last had looked.

I tried this yesterday. For about a third of the day, this seemed to be working well. I checked the app occasionally, but not incessantly. And then I got distracted by other activities and I forgot about Facebook entirely for most of the rest of the day. And then, later at night, I opened up the app.

And that was when the problem became apparent. I had something like 20 notifications of people interacting with various things I had posted. I do not feel that I need to see, read, or even know about every post that every friend of mine makes, but I do feel it is inconsiderate not to read what they comment when it is on something that I myself originally posted. So I feel duty bound to look at all of these notifications, at least enough to feel I know what they are. Even when the notification is as innocuous as “Joe liked your post,” I feel like I ought to know which post. That’s what friends do, right? Pay attention to one another when interacting?

Some time ago I became an Inbox Zero person. I keep nothing in my email Inbox. Everything has been processed and either archived, noted for later action, or dealt with. What I learned about that is that the very best way to stay on top of your email inbox is to deal with it constantly and immediately. This is contrary to some productivity hackers who say just check email once per day or whatever. I find that when I do that, I am greeted with 100+ emails at once that I have to slog through. But, if I constantly handle email throughout the day, the energy expenditure is minimal. Random emails from random people? Scan enough to know it’s unimportant, and delete. Informational cc: lines? Scan and archive. Notes from my boss? Look at what is needed, figure out what I need to do, dash off a “got it” response, write down the to-do, archive. I find that it is easy and beneficial to handle all these tasks in the moment, rather than batched. In fact, doing all that in a batched way is a nightmare and results in Inbox 100+ instead of Inbox Zero — at least, that is my experience.

The same with Facebook. Yesterday’s experiment made me realize that it is useful and actually easier for me to just deal with Facebook a bit at a time, as and when notifications come in. I make them unobtrusive (so I do not have any alerts or banners, and certainly no sounds, on my app — just little badges) and they serve as reminders.

So I am back to Square One with my Facebook app. I’ve turned on my notifications again.

Which means I still have my original problem: balance among my online pusuits. But at least I now know of two potential solutions that don’t work, at least not for me.

Today I happened to play an old playlist while I took a run. In the mix, a song came on that took me back and sent me on a reverie. I thought I’d share it.

Some years ago I was in a band called The West End along with my good friends and neighbors Monique DeFrees (drums), Mike Shawn (keys and vox), and Matthew Taylor (bass). I played guitar and sang. Later, another good friend, Kate Gordon joined and improved our vocals immensely. We played about 2/3 covers and 1/3 originals — it was the originals that kept me in the game because I loved writing and performing new songs. I saw them as similar to blog posts or essays.

(Most people don’t go out to see original live music except by established bands so we had to also play covers that people recognized. We made them our own, but it still was never as fun as for me playing our own music.)

Eventually, we saved enough money by playing gigs to pay for recording studio time, a producer, and CD duplication — and we had ourselves an album! It was called This Ride Could Be My Last.

The song that came on my playlist was from that album. I hadn’t listened in a while. You know what? It holds up.

But I wanted to share a bit about where the song came from. There are two songs on the album that relate directly to a professional project I had been working on. The songs are “Father Lou” and “They Go.”

The Project: End of Life Decisions

At the time I wrote these songs, I was embroiled in research for an issue guide I was working on for a client, the Kettering Foundation. The topic of the issue guide (a report designed to support public deliberation on a difficult topics) was the end of life. Who decides what happens at the end of life? How do we as a society want to think about the notion of assisted suicide? Euthanasia? How do we balance personal freedom with sound and fair policy? More than perhaps many such pieces of work, the topic was quite wrenching.

(In case you are interested, the issue guide is available here.)

Building a Song From an Observation: “Father Lou”

The first song that comes out of this period is a quick little number called “Father Lou.” It started out (in my mind) as a very slow, dirge-like tune — but my bandmates wisely told me to speed it up. Click the player below to listen:

This song came to me sort of fully-formed, and it unfolded in my mind all while I was on a run (like today’s) through a sketchy area in Memphis, Tennessee.

Part of the work we do in developing issue guides like the one I was working on is hold focus groups with ordinary people to talk about the issue at hand. We want to see how real people talk about the issue, what their chief concerns are, and how they start out thinking about the issue. Focus group houses are in all kinds of neighborhoods, some fancy and some marginal. I find myself fairly often in marginal areas because we want to get “truly ordinary” folks in our groups, not the professional types that are more easily recruited to take part in focus groups in fancy facilities (these usually cater to corporate clients).

Anyway, there I was in Memphis, and the group was later that night but it was mid-day. So I went for a run through the neighborhood. I came upon a set of city blocks where it seemed like every other driveway had a car on blocks. The other driveways also had cars in them, and it took me a while to figure out why this might seem out of place to me: It was midday and in many other neighborhoods these cars would all be at work. But here they were.

So the lines that would become the third verse popped into my head. And then the song sort of built itself as I ran.

It’s not about end of life questions, it is actually about a character I had in my head at the time — a priest who goes to a Skid Row area thinking he is going to rescue everyone there. Little does he know that people see him as a figure of fun and ridicule, and eventually they turn on him.

(At the end of this post you can read the full lyrics.)

Song as Issue Guide: “They Go.”

Another song on the album is more directly related to this end of life issue guide. The stories I heard as I listened to focus groups while working on this guide got deep into my head and rattled around. One day, while taking a stroll outside a Dayton hotel, this scenario of someone stuck alone in a hospital with a terminal illness came into my head. Somehow this mixed with an image I had of a family member who had recently had heart surgery — he complained to me in a conversation about how the nurses come and go all through the night while he tried to rest and recuperate.

These two ideas mixed together and I wrote a song about this person alone in a hospital, with a terminal illness, writing a letter to a friend. The two friends had promised one another on some drunken night to “take care of it” if either was hospitalized and incapacitated, destined for a lingering death.

So this song popped out: The chorus is based on the “coming and going” all night, while the overall theme comes directly from the thoughts running through my head as I developed a framework for public deliberation on the topic of end of life decisions.

I hope you like them.

The Lyrics

In case you are interested (I usually want to know them), here are the lyrics for each song:

FATHER LOU
By Brad Rourke

There’s a certain part of town
Where the fire trucks never run
There’s nothing there to burn
That would be missed by anyone
There’s a sidewalk over there
Behind the sheriff’s impound lot
Where bedrooms are reserved
By spreading cardboard out

Into this place comes a man
Trying to do the best he can
Sent there on a mission from the lord
Save these lost sheep from the sword

He walks these crooked streets
Spreading handouts all around
Like everyone’s a mark
And the carnival’s in town
They all stick out their hands
And gladly take his grace
Some laugh behind his back
And others in his face

How many times before he learns
Watch your back or get your fingers burned
Saving souls is no work for the weak
You’ll catch your death just standing on the street

There’s a certain part of town
Where cars stay home all day
Some on blocks and others got no place
To go to anyway
Remember Father Lou
He used to hang around down here
Until we jacked him for his wallet
And his body disappeared

Into this place came a man
Trying to do the best he can
Sent here on a mission from the lord
Save us lost sheep from the sword
Save us lost sheep from the sword
Save us lost sheep from the sword

And, finally:

THEY GO
By Brad Rourke

Come and see me where I’m at
I wish I could pay for that
You’ll have to make your own way
I might not last another day

They come, they go
Always at the same time
They come, they go
It’s how I know I’m alive

There’s nothing private in this room
The lights always seem to go out too soon
Right when I’m just settling down
Nothing left for me but the night sounds

They come, they go
Always at the same time
They come, they go
It’s how I know I’m alive

Hope this message reaches you
And if it does you’ll know what to do
Remember that night of promises
Do what you said if it comes to this

They come, they go
Always at the same time
They come, they go
It’s how I know I’m alive
They come, they go
I’m alone most of the time
They come, they go
If you hurry you’ll make it here in plenty of time

Don’t argue with me by Flickr user ClaraDon

I was recently asked to respond to the question, “What trends have you been seeing in democracy?” I thought I might share my response more broadly.

One of the core experiences when it comes to democracy in the U.S. context is the effect of hyperpolarization. This is a pathology that goes beyond simple ”partisanship” (which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing). Hyperpolarization refers to the inability or refusal to consider other ”tribe’s” views as valid and to (at the same time) actively seek out tribal markers.

This plays out in the most obvious way in presidential-year politics. To a liberal, anything Romney says ought to be parsed so it can be seen as showing how anti-worker he is. Similarly, a conservative (under this model) will seek out reasons to find Obama to be a government-first softie.

But it matters beyond presidential electoral politics. In a hyperpolarized world, citizens on an individual level are constantly looking for cues to see what tribe people belong to. And, once the tribe is identified, we scour the person’s words and deeds for reasons to hate or love them. I have seen this play out on a local level, as people examine one another’s speech to determine if they are for or against a certain housing development (for example). Once the judgment is made, everything that person says is either agreed with and defended, or subject to ridicule and derision . . . entirely due to which ”tribe” or ”team” we believe them to be on.

This hyperpolarization stands in the way of productive choice-making in communities and is one of the key pathologies we currently face. (Not the only.)

As last year ended, I announced that I had decided to take a yoga teacher training course. The first weekend (of eight) is done. I am both exhilarated and tired. I am excited to be taking these first steps along a new path, and to deepen my connection (and understanding) of the practice.

The teacher training is being presented by Down Dog Yoga — my home yoga studio. Down Dog has taught over 150 teachers. One of the strengths of the studio (which is consistently voted best of DC) is that all the teachers are of uniformly high caliber. As one fellow student put it, “there is no teacher I am hiding from.”

On the first day, we were invited to respond to a simple question: “Why are you here?” I had, of course, already answered this question for myself in a rudimentary way — else why spend the money and time to attend? Neither investment is trivial.

My rudimentary answer had been something or other about wanting to “deepen my practice.” That was enough to get me through the door.

On the wall upstairs at lululemon Georgetown, where our teacher training is held.

However, when it came my turn to answer, I found myself thinking much more intently about my reasons for being there, and the role yoga — this yoga — has come to play in my life. The style of yoga I practice is called “power yoga” and it is rooted in the teaching and practice of Baron Baptiste. It is quite strenuous and at Down Dog it is practiced in rooms heated to 99 degrees. It literally transforms me as I practice. I enter in one state, and exit in another. I enter as a head attached to a body — by the end of practice I can feel my body and mind integrated. The practice has taken me out of my head, and landed me right in my body.

This sounds a little kooky, but it is my experience.

There are many styles of yoga, and they all hold a different intention. Some styles promote flexibility, some relaxation, some strength, and some love. Most styles deliver all of these and more in varying amounts, but they all have a primary purpose. The primary purpose of power yoga is personal transformation.

Why Are You Here?

I said on Friday evening that “yoga went off like a bomb in my life.” As many of my friends know, about two years ago I had an epiphany around my physical body. I have had a handful of experiences throughout my life where I have been driven to make major changes in my outlook. Two years ago such a reorienting experience hit my physical body. Put simply, I realized that I was no longer 20 (even though I felt that way in my head). My physical body was the vessel that was carrying me through life. It was time to focus attention on its maintenance.

I have always been a person who enjoys exercise, but that was really the extent of my relationship to wellness. I would have said I was “a fit person,” perhaps even athletic. I had run marathons, and did some regular cardio work at the gym. My friends saw me as fit.

But my epiphany was that this dilettante approach to wellness was wholly inadequate. I was fooling myself. Because I had been blessed with a decent body, I had not had to face the shortcomings of the little attention I paid to my physical being. But vanity drove me to confront that which I had denied: I had gained enough pounds that I did not like the result. This was not about how I “looked” (although that did figure into it) — it was that when I looked at myself, I could not apply the label “athletic” to what I saw. I saw that my intention (fitness) and reality were far apart.

So, height of cliches, I tried a new exercise routine that a friend had told me about. Yes, I bought the P90X DVDs that you’ve seen on infomercials. And I did it, the whole thing. I had good results which I detailed on this site.

Looking back, there are three things I take away from that experience, which are now relevant to me: 1) I did not make any nutritional changes, so while I gained strength, my weight-loss results were minimal; 2) I learned that I enjoy strength training; 3) I discovered yoga.

Part of the P90X program is a once-per-week yoga session. The P90X yoga routine is hard. As I continued in the  exercise program, and after it ended, I stuck with the yoga and began to do it more. It is hard to maintain solo exercise for me, so I looked for yoga studios. I tried a number of them, and nothing really gave me the same feeling . . . until I discovered Down Dog.

At Down Dog, I discovered the experience that the DVD I had been working with only hinted at.

I began to experience personal transformation.

Since that time, my yoga practice has grown, as have a number of other wellness-related areas of my life. I learned about nutrition and shed a great deal of unhealthy body fat. My entire relationship to my physical being has changed:

  • I eat a strictly “paleo” diet (the evidence against the modern American diet, based on mass agricultural products, is compelling to me);
  • I do heavy resistance-based strength training 2-3 times a week;
  • I have abandoned long-distance cardio/endurance activities, as the evidence is strong that they are  counterproductive to health and fitness; and
  • I practice power yoga at least four times per week.

Of these elements, the two I cannot give up are the nutritional approach and the yoga. Other elements come and go, but the nutrition and the yoga are what are at the core of this transformation I am undergoing. I have never felt (or been) better than I am now — on a number of measures including feeling of well-being, capacity for exercise, and medical biomarkers such as cholesterol and insulin levels.

Why Teach?

My transformation is this: I brought consciousness to my relationship with my physical being. The fruits of this transformation have been life-changing.

Some may view my emphasis on physicality to be shallow. First of all, I engage in a number of other practices (I don’t drink, I meditate regularly, I connect spiritually with others on a regular basis) that are “deeper.” But secondly, this criticism misses the point. I have come to focus on my physical body not because I want to look cool — it is because I was forced to realize that my lack of relationship with my body was a gaping hole in my life.

Power yoga, as I have found it at Down Dog Yoga, has brought me into relationship with my body. I respect my body, and plan on taking care of it as I would an heirloom passed on to me by a loved one. It is this relationship I want to learn to pass on to others. We all live in bodies, and we can all be in better relationship to them. I have first-hand knowledge of the benefits of developing such a relationship.

I have so far to go in my understanding and practice. I know only a little — I am painfully aware of that. But if I can pass on the joy I have come to discover, then I feel I will be doing something beneficial.

And so, I embark on this journey. I don’t know where it will take me. But it seems clearly the next right step — so I take it.

Bronnie Ware is a singer and writer from Australia. For a number of years, she worked in palliative care (that is, attending to the dying). Out of that experience, she has written a book called The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying (affiliate link).

Photo by andronicusmax (Flickr)

As the year closes, and as we sweep away the past and look to the blank slate of the future, many of us are making “resolutions” or at the least setting their intentions. Bonnie’s list provides some insight as to what enduring goals might look like.

The top five regrets of the dying:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I’m thinking about these ideas as I formulate my own set of intentions for 2012.

I recently was asked to recap some of the research I have been fortunate to be a part of as it relates to Americans’ concerns when they think about the future. I’ve had a chance to review focus group findings (and conduct a few of my own) for a number of projects over the past twelve months, and a number of interesting themes have emerged.

I see seven related and interlocking concerns:

Photo by o5com (Flickr)

The “Deal” Is Falling Apart

What used to be the implicit deal between individuals and the future no longer holds true. It used to be that people had a sense of what they had to do in order to guarantee their economic security moving forward. Working hard, developing a trade or going to college, and playing by the rules, would be rewarded by a decent job, a decent living, and a decent retirement. No more. There are no longer any guarantees when it comes to the future.

Institutions Are Not Trustworthy

The “deal” referred to above was supported in large part by public institutions (I mean “public” in a broad sense): higher education, large employers, government agencies, community organizations. People no longer trust these institutions to do what they promise. (Even higher education, near the top of the list in terms of how much people find it trustworthy, only garners 35% trust.) Yet these institutions still control many aspects of people’s day-to-day lives. The frustration this generates is palpable.

The Moral Compass Is Askew

People say they are worried that America’s morals are in decline. This is a broad-based worry. People are worried about public leaders acting hypocritically, about business leaders acting out of greed, about fellow community members acting out of selfishness. Because they can’t trust others to behave responsibly, people say they have in large part given up hope that better rules or better enforcement will fix the problem.

America’s Best Days May Be Behind Us

People are plagued with a nagging feeling that our best days are behind us. People say they are aware that in many cases the next generation will be worse off than now. They also worry about America’s place in the world — and have misgivings that other nations (especially China and India) are poised to take over the reins.

Leaders Are Not Up To The Challenge

People express skepticism that the current generation of leaders is really up to the tasks it has before it. The debt ceiling debacle was just another in a long line of failures of leadership. People are dumfounded by leaders who appear to be unable to drive progress of any sort.

We Can’t Work Together

At the same time, people lament that on an “ordinary people” level, we used to be able to work together productively — and they feel we have lost that. People say they are literally afraid of their neighbors and that public life even on the local level has become filled with shouting and anger. They feel people can’t put community ahead of individual.

The Elites Don’t Care, People Are Shut Out

People are really, really disgusted with elites — political, business, academic, and more. People think that elites have an easy life that is guaranteed — for instance, majorities of people in focus groups believe that elected officials get a salary for life and are shuttled around in limousines. They also believe leaders actively rig things so they can have it easier and easier, and that they work against the public’s interest at times on purpose.

It’s not a happy picture. America is in a dark mood, collectively. People are reluctant to express hope and, when they do, it sounds somewhat forced. For example, many adults say they think that today’s youth will be able to get good jobs because they will have technical skills — but scratch at the surface and the optimism vanishes.

The above is based on my analysis of work by a number of good friends (including John Doble, John Creighton, and Steve Farkas) and on some of my own work. I am sure there are other concerns that I do not touch on. I was trying to hit the overriding themes. What would you add?