Today is an historic day in the life of our nation. Today the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for states to prohibit or fail to recognize marriages between partners of the same sex. I am lucky enough to have an office near the Supreme Court building, and I could not help but walk over and watch the celebrations.
Walking back to my office, I reflected on the nature of this decision. It ratifies a social move toward equality that began long ago as mores started shifting in the social upheavals of the 1960’s. (Indeed the roots stretch back much farther.)
Institutions have been catching up ever since, too slowly for almost everyone and in fits and starts. Different parts of society have benefited at unequal rates and in unequal amounts. But the general progression has been for the major institutions in our lives take note of and respond to the changes in our society.
Institutions are a special kind concept — not just some kind of organization. We establish institutions so as to provide permanence. We ask them to be slow to change, because they are meant to undergird society for the long haul.
The institution of the judiciary, the entity charged with being the memory of our collective conscience, embodies this “slow to change” concept. It operates according to a concept called stare decisis. This is Latin for “stand by things decided.” This is the meaning of precedent. Judges decide conflicts. They look for the universal rules underlying the conflicts and ask what the rule ought to be. The intent is that for future, similar conflicts, this decision is the binding rule by which they should be decided. This “common law” is equally binding as other forms of laws or regulations.
But today’s decision is more sweeping than a law, or a regulation, or a vote, all of which can be undone. The operating system of the judiciary is built such that decisions only rarely get unmade and then only under exceedingly special circumstances. The decisions of the Supreme Court are permanent.
Today’s ruling is an unequivocal statement for equality. As such it will be the law of the land from here on. Only a cataclysm will unmake it. It took a long time to get here, but here we are.
So much more progress to be made, in so many more arenas — but today is a good day.
Today (June 10, 2015) marks the 80th birthday of Alcoholics Anonymous. In popular culture and even among those who are a part of “the program,” AA is seen as a useful oganization, or as a set of support groups for people who are trying to follow the directions of a particularly enduring self-help book. Of course, to some it is seen as a cult. But all of these views miss the important genesis of this spiritual movement.
I use the term “spiritual movement” with care, for I believe that is what it is. It is spiritual in nature and it is a movement in the strictest sense of the word: a polycentric, wide ranging, collective sense of direction marked by complementary actions toward a common goal and with no central director but instead many smaller coordinating entities and individuals.
Nowadays, when someone has a good idea about how to do something, they may write a book that sets forth their principles. It will often be structured in ways similar to a workbook or a textbook. It may have boxes sprinkled liberally throughout, questions to ask oneself after each chapter, even spaces for notes. Then the person or group who published it will set out to develop some kind of organizational structure based on that. Even when gently and empathetically directed, this is a prescriptive organizational enterprise and it has at its core the model of school: We know something that we are going to teach you, and your job is to learn it.
AA came about differently.
Beginnings: An Insight
AA started with an insight that one of the co-founders (Bill W.) had while in a New York alcoholic asylum after literally losing all. He had had what he saw as a spiritual awakening and felt that this may well help keep him away from a drink when all else had failed. (He had been visited by a friend who had joined the now-defunct Oxford Group, which was an evangelical Christian movement started in 1908. This started him thinking spiritually.) But Bill’s further insight was that only by trying to help other alcoholics would he himself be able to stay sober. So he started looking for drunks to try to help. He had no real success in terms of helping people, but his insight held: he himself stayed sober.
On a business trip to Akron in 1935 that fell apart catastrophically, Bill was at loose ends in his hotel. A big talker, he had been trying to corner the market on rubber and his deal was in shambles. He had no money to pay his hotel bill. He could use a drink. He hovered in the lobby, looking into the hotel bar on one side, and at a church directory on the other. For some reason he chose the church directory and started dialing. Not looking for a sermon — he thought churches would be good places to find alcoholics he could help. When the chips were down, his original insight held: he’d better go help someone, or he might drink.
Eventually, after much dialing, he got put in touch with a local doctor who had also pretty much lost all (Dr. Bob, the other co-founder). Dr. Bob had been trying to stay sober to no avail, and had almost lost his practice completely. They met. Bill told Bob what he knew about alcoholism: that it was like a disease over which he had no control, that one had to figure out a way to seek power greater than oneself, and that in order to keep any kind of sobriety one had to try to help others. Because Bill was a fellow alcoholic and had been through the same wringer Dr. Bob had, he listened. Bill knew what he was talking about where (it seemed) all the previous moralizers did not. Bill was not forcing anything on Dr. Bob, just telling him his experience and what worked for him.
Dr. Bob felt his problem was behind him and the two began to help others. Bill stayed in Akron. They sought out drunks and tried to help them. Bob eventually took a business trip during this time, and got drunk. He came back with his tail between his legs and a renewed sense of purpose. He had to work harder at this thing, which didn’t even have a name.
AA’s “birthday” is seen as that day, the day of Dr. Bob’s last drink. June 10, 1935.
The book Alcoholics Anonymous was not even an idea at that time. It would not be written until 1939.
What Bill and Dr. Bob did was to continue to try to find and help alcoholics. A small group grew up around them, and they spent almost all their time together, like people in a lifeboat. They started to meet together at night, drinking coffee and smoking, and sharing with each other so they could collectively stay sober. At first they met in local Oxford Groups, but eventually split off and met on their own. As each person achieved sobriety, they began to try to help others. There was nothing written down, no organization, no rules to speak of. Just hard, practical work. Dr. Bob was sneaking patients into hospitals so they could sober up, and the administrators of such facilities were looking the other way because it seemed to work. (Bill eventually went back to New York and this same kind of growth happened there, too.)
Eventually, when it seemed clear they were onto something, Bill wanted to create a huge (and moneymaking) organization complete with treatment centers. Others were skeptical and thought this might ruin what they had. They had a vote. The group was not interested — but they would be willing for a book to be written that would set forth what they had been doing thus far in order to stay sober. (This idea passed by just one vote.) The book “Alcoholics Anonymous” came from this decision — collectively written, a literal effort to capture what they had been doing for the last four years that seemed to be working.
A Movement Today
Since publication of that book, AA has grown remarkably. But it has maintained its practical roots and remains a movement. It has, by design, as little organization as is possible, only such that is necessary. Its functions are governed by a simple set of traditions that keep all power (what little there is) in the hands of local groups and places the central office in a service role, answerable to the collective conscience of AA groups and members. Anyone who has run or worked in organizations knows this is no way to run an enterprise, as it makes decision-making enormously difficult. But it is how a movement can retain its essential character as a group endeavor run by no one person and democratically aimed.
I find this history remarkable both for how amazingly that small 1935 meeting has grown into a global phenomenon that has literally saved millions of lives, but also for how unlike other organizational stories it is. AA is not the story of a centrally directed organization coming to power. It is the story of a social movement.
I used to know someone who was the “town drunk” (his words) in a port town on a remote island nation. A merchant marine vessel docked there. On that ship was a recovering alcoholic. He had with him a pamphlet he had gotten from the central office (one of its duties is to publish such pamphlets). My friend came into contact with the seaman (who, as a good AA member, was seeking people he could help get sober). The ship left port. My friend was left behind. He and his friends started meeting together and talking, basing their interactions on that one pamphlet. AA now thrives on that island nation. Not because they wrote to New York to get permission, but because they started working together, and it seemed to work.
Happy birthday, AA.
Today marks the 150th consecutive day that I have, without fail, engaged in a set spiritual practice. I started around the new year, checked in after four weeks and again 100 days in. It started from a feeling of dissolution, a need to reconnect to a path toward a higher self. My real self.
Every morning, I:
- Read spiritual literature (this and this and this)
- Pray (this prayer or this or this)
- Write a letter to God in my journal (this morning it looked like the photo)
- Meditate 5-15 minutes (from the CD included with this book, or from audio at this site)
This practice is entirely about steady, slow progress. Sometimes I feel inspired and connected. Sometimes my practice is at best perfunctory. But I do it. I have done it enough, now, that I feel a bit superstitious about it.
What will befall me if I skip? says a small, fearful voice. Nothing, certainly. Just as this practice does not make me saintly, neither will skipping make me less a person. But I don’t ever want to feel as low as I began. I feel continuing to do this allows me to in general keep moving away from that place. I worry if I stop that I will start to drift back there.
The “letters to God” that I write are for the most part the same set of ideas over and over. I mostly pray for knowledge of the next right thing, and for the willingness to carry that out. I merely write that letter in order to have tangible proof that I did my practice today. It’s something I can see.
So, 150 days of something so simple is no great accomplishment. But for someone as distracted, willful, and self absorbed as I am . . . it is not nothing. So I take pleasure and am grateful for the wherewithal to keep on this path. Others have expressed interest, so I keep reporting in.
I am asked to talk about what I think are some of the most important elements of public deliberation to different groups from time to time. Public deliberation is just one way of describing people working together to weigh options about what to do about a difficult shared problem.
One aspect of this involves the question: What problem should we talk about? This shows up in different ways. For instance, groups that seek to work in civic engagement often have a problem on their minds that they believe the community must address. “How will we get people to come to such meetings?” they may wonder. Or in other cases a group thinking about fostering public dialogue has the sense that there is something that is bothering people throughout the community, but aren’t sure exactly what it is. “What do people think the problem is?” such groups may wonder.
These are all different ways of talking about naming. By that term, when applying it to public deliberation, I simply mean: What is the problem that we all agree we must talk about? If I want people to come to my meeting, I need to present a problem that everyone agrees is important to discuss.
But for groups trying to foster public deliberation, it doesn’t stop there. Not all such “shared problems” are actually suited to public deliberation. Why? Deliberating together is necessary for problems where collective (complementary) action is required in order to move forward. This isn’t the case for all problems — some problems, while widely seen as important, can be solved by one or two agencies or organizations, or the solution is clear and it is technical.
(Note that these aren’t the only important dimensions, but they are high on the list. Public deliberation is called for where the nature of the problem is in dispute, where solutions involve tensions between things held commonly valuable, and where any solution necessarily involves multiple actors. Some people refer to such problems as “wicked” problems.)
I recently began thinking about different ways to convey the nature of problems that are suited to public deliberation, and I had an insight that I could draw a picture of those two different dimensions. (See right.) I scrawled this down on a scrap of paper, but more recently I’ve tried to make it clearer. Below is what I came up with. Click it to see it larger and more legibly.
Notice that I have notionally spread out different kinds of “shared problems” to show how it works. You might dispute my placement. It’s really just illustrative — my point is that there is an important difference between the issue of “crime” and “pedestrian safety” in the minds of most people. Indeed, each dimension on the graph represents the broadly held sense in the community about the problem. (So it isn’t precise and isn’t meant to be.)Problems toward the upper right on these scales are more likely to require public deliberation — so groups seeking to support such public work will likely be best served by focusing on such problems.
What this means practically is that a group may think that the community needs to talk about, say, healthy school lunches. But it is easy to imagine that among community members there won’t be broad agreement that we MUST deal with this issue, nor broad agreement that working together is necessary to tackle it. During concern gathering where the group asks community members what concerns them about the issue, they may hear people talk about food deserts, difficulties in finding healthy food that families experience who are struggling, and worries that poor health is creating problems more broadly in the community. In listening carefully to such concerns, the organizing group may come to the conclusion that people in the community are more willing to believe that “obesity” is a problem we ought to or must deal with, and that progress will take many different people.
In a learning exchange where I recently discussed this way of looking at problems, a number of people suggested different dimensions, or making it three-dimensional. Those are valid ideas and I think the concept is worth playing with.
One terrific benefit of working in the philanthropic sector is the opportunity to attend the Council on Foundations’ annual meeting. This major event invariably brings together significant thinkers who share their learning and insights with foundations, which are a key part of the social sector and arguably one of the most important leverage points. This year we will be in San Francisco.
I had the good fortune this year to be invited to play a role in the planning of this conference, serving as a member of the “Civil Society Working Group.” I have no idea how I ended up with this group of people, which includes some real leaders in the field, mentors, and people I have admired for years.
We were tasked with developing a series of breakout sessions that focused on how civil society can more productively work and be supported by philanthropy.
I’m particularly excited to be moderating one of the sessions:
Philanthropy’s Role in Free Speech, Press, and Religion
The recent Charlie Hebdo terror attack in Paris reminded us across the globe of the democratic values we enjoy and must protect in a civil society. In addition, these events remind us of the ongoing need for civil discourse that allows disparate ideologies to have voice. What is philanthropy’s role to ensure open speech, inclusion of ideological and religious differences, privacy, and the right to assemble?
Discussants on this topic will be:
- Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice
- Eboo Patel, founder and president, Interfaith Youth Core
- Abdi Soltani, executive director of ACLU NorCal
If you are coming to the meeting, join me at 11:15 am on Sunday, April 26 for this session! We will be in the Yerba Buena Ballroom, Salon 1/2, Lower B2 Level.
This morning, I wrote this in my journal, my letter to whatever the force is that drives the universe:
What would it mean to lead a life of true faith? I would trust absolutely – trust that all I need would be provided, that no trial would be greater than I could bear. I would also have trust that I would know the right course of action – that guidance would come.
To live a life of true faith means that I would seek not to listen to my own will, and to not concern myself with outcomes. A life of true faith means my only productive expenditure of effort is in discerning your will, and trying to carry it out. Everything else is wasted.
This morning marks four full weeks of daily spiritual work: prayer, reading, journaling, and meditation. I have done each of these things every morning since the year began. I’ve done them even when it felt as if I did not have the time. I’ve done them even when I had to look at my watch and say, “I have fifteen minutes and that is what I have to devote this morning.” So some mornings have been better than others. But I haven’t missed a morning.
So in other words, this has been a practice. Something I have done regularly and without fail.
I ended 2014 at a very low point emotionally and spiritually. I felt exhausted and pressured. Things that had brought me joy before seemed tepid at best. I had fleeting periods of good feeling, but they were briefer and briefer. I felt increasingly empty, even in the midst of loving family, rewarding work, and evident physical health. I was working out. I was doing yoga. I was eating right. Indeed, some Facebook friends would say I over-emphasized my “healthy lifestyle,” flooding the Internet with pictures of happy-me at yoga and the gym, and plates full of good Paleo grub.
At the new year, people often make resolutions or set intentions. I resolved to try to take some kind of action. I could not go on so empty. I decided to shed all of the “activities” I had engaged in, all the body-worship and inward-focus. My healthy eating, my working out, even my yoga . . . it was all focused on me. It was a circle leading nowhere.
So I dropped it all and got back to basics. Simple, spiritual practice. Period. Nothing fancy. Each morning:
- Read spiritual literature
- Pray to the God of my understanding
- Write a “letter to God,” which counts as my journal
I can’t say I am a person with deep faith, so the prayer was nothing fancy. I asked each day for knowledge of God’s will for me, and the power and willingness to carry it out. In other words, my prayer was just that I would know the next right thing to do, and have the willingness to do it. I did not picture a being overseeing the world, it was not a Christian or any other kind of religious god I was praying to. Just a force for good that I think of as x. An unknown quantity. I’m not even sure I believe, nor do I think I have to.
The journaling was simple too. You often see people in movies writing a “dear diary” kind of entry. I thought it would be useful to feel as if I was telling someone what was on my mind that morning. A long time ago someone mentioned to me that when they were feeling bad they wrote a letter to God and that stuck with me. So I tried it again.
And as for meditation, this, too, was nothing fancy. A few years ago I obtained the book Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield. It’s got a CD with a few short meditation exercises. (Here’s audio of the first one, which just focuses on being aware of breath.) They are each about ten minutes. I would just listen to one every morning. If I had little time, I would just set my timer for five minutes, and count my breaths, trying to be aware of how I felt for each one. Again . . . nothing fancy.
The purpose of all this was twofold. I wanted relief from the hamster wheel rolling in my head. And I wanted to focus outside of myself. By asking for the power and willingness to just be helpful in the world, I thought I might fret less about my own little dramas.
After a few days, perhaps just short of a week, I began slowly to feel better. My world did not change, the skies did not part, there was no “awakening.” I just felt better.I began slowly to feel more able to handle things that came my way. I did not fear the day so much. Troubles began to shrink. I began to have some perspective.
Another week passed. I began to feel I had the mental (and temporal) bandwidth to start yoga again, and some exercise. But I promised myself if those things crowded out my spiritual practice that I would drop them again immediately. So what if I got fatter and weaker? I had to be right on the inside. And the practice continued.
And things kept improving.
This has been the steady result. Not in a linear progression — it has had its ups and downs, its strong days and weaker days.
I plan to continue this practice moving forward. Not out of any virtue. I don’t think “good people pray and meditate, bad people don’t.” But it seems to be working for me and I don’t want to feel like I did four weeks ago. And it gets easier each day I practice. I am less distracted as I write, my mind wanders less when I meditate.
But overall I can say I feel much more whole than I did on January 1. I feel more useful to those around me. And that’s an OK start.
Almost ten years ago, when the kids were still in elementary school and I was two years into what would be a long period of working independently in my home office, a situation that my wife had enjoyed already for eight years, I wrote a column for The Christian Science Monitor about my situation.
And my situation? It was perfect. Everything — home, family, economic well being — all revolved around our thriving household:
As I rise in the early morning, I often imagine a farmhouse in a small, agricultural community, perhaps in Maine 80 years ago. This imaginary farm provides the means for the family’s getting by. The chickens give up eggs; the cows, milk; and the soil, vegetables. Well-tended, the farm generates income at market as well as sustenance at home. It is the economic engine of the family. All hands work at making it run.
Our own house is like that farm, updated for the early 21st century. Instead of milking the cows, I fire up my screen and scan the night’s e-mail. Instead of harvesting the turnips, my wife drafts a new report for a client. Instead of feeding the chickens, the kids could collate a mailing (admittedly a rare occurrence). All of this puts food on the table. And it all happens at home. . . .
Xenophon, “history’s first professional writer” according to one classics professor, was born in Athens around 430 BC. His Oeconomicus is influential. It is a housekeeping manual, a discussion between the immortal Socrates and another man, concerning the best way to keep an estate. In this work, the two agree that it is “the business of the good economist to manage his own house or estate well.” It is from this household care manual that we get the word “economics.” It’s about the inflows and outflows that go into keeping a home. Seen this way, “home economics” is redundant: Economy is about the home to begin with.
Now, with daughter at college, son considering, and parents retired, I find I want to double down on this way of thinking. We live in uncertain times. They are made all the more uncertain by social norms that dictate young people should grow up and get out, that as seniors age they should seek out “retirement communities” where they can live with others like themselves.
I want to be a countervailing force.
I want my house to be, and remain, an intergenerational beacon. I want my wife’s mother to choose to live with us in retirement. I want my kids to boomerang back home, not in failure but by choice. Or, at least, I hope for those concerned to see this as a viable and desirable alternative.
So much research points to the benefits of intergenerational connections, and yet our social structures tell us that “moving back home” (both for old and young) is to be avoided. What if it were the norm? It is, after all, why humans choose to cohabit and live in company: to thrive and be secure. Why should a modern life obviate this evolutionary imperative?
In my ideal fantasy, multiple generations live in our 21st century farmhouse, supporting one another, providing the social network and glue that help us thrive. And — hope of hopes — this ethos gets passed on so that my kids feel the same way, welcoming both their parents as well as their adult children to continue to thrive together as we row our lifeboat through the currents.
I can dream, can’t I?
(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When I arrived at my office this morning and saw the cover of The Wall Street Journal, I knew I had to write a post about the difference between the dominant political narratives of issues, and the more nuanced way that the public sees the same issues — in this case, having to do with immigration. The president and the speaker are at loggerheads on this already (or still, depending on how you look at it). Just those juxtaposed images tell the story of exactly the kind of political stalemate that Americans are incensed about.
This from my post at Inside Public Judgment:
Kettering research over decades suggests that the way difficult issues like immigration are framed by policy leaders and experts is often at odds, or at least out of step with, the way in which people see those issues. Where the dominant political discourse frequently sees conflict, people in communities are wrestling with tensions among the things they hold valuable. This is not a question of one solution versus another. Instead, the question individuals must wrestle with is, what am I willing to give up—and under what conditions.
On immigration, Kettering research suggests that people see this issue in a more nuanced way than the binary amnesty-vs.-tough-borders way in which the issue has been portrayed in the media. Their concerns center on a range of things that are held commonly valuable by all—our self-image as a welcoming nation, personal and national security, and the reality seen by many that our prosperity depends on immigrants. These concerns became the basis for the options in a guide for public deliberation that Kettering prepared for the National Issues Forums Institute, Immigration in America: How Do We Fix a System in Crisis? Three options are outlined, each rooted in a different view of the problem:
1. Welcome New Arrivals. A rich combination of diverse cultures is what defines us as a people. We must preserve our heritage as a nation of immigrants by shoring up our existing system while also providing an acceptable way for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living here to earn the right to citizenship.
2. Protect Our Borders. Failure to stem the tide of illegal immigration undermines our national security, stiffens competition for scarce jobs, and strains the public purse. We need tighter control of our borders, tougher enforcement of our immigration laws, and stricter limits on the number of immigrants legally accepted into the country.
3. Promote Economic Prosperity. To remain competitive in the 21st-century global economy, we need to acknowledge the key role that immigrants play in keeping the US economy dynamic and robust. This option favors a range of flexible measures, such as annual adjustments to immigration quotas, that put a priority on our economic needs.
The difficulty of immigration lies in the tensions between these things. One reason this issue is so intractable is that these tensions must be worked through by the public before there can be any durable policy solution.
Read the whole piece here.