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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

America's Self-Cultivation Crisis

This essay originally appeared on History News Network.

No sooner did candidate and self-help guru Marianne Williamson engineer her breakout momentin the Democrat’s presidential debate on July 31 in Detroit than she found herself panned for half-baked views on depression and mental health. But Williamson’s quixotic campaign has highlighted one salutary theme: America had better learn to up its game in cultivating civic empathy lest the “dark psychic force of collectivized hatred” of which she spoke tear us apart.

Mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton over the Aug. 3 weekend, in which hate-filled gunmen killed 31 people and wounded dozens more, brutally underscore the point. White supremacists and weaponized haters represent the antithesis of civic empathy, and by now we know good intentions alone won’t fix the curse of gun violence in America; we need consensus and action on sane gun-control measures. We also need a more robust empathy offensive to reknit our fraying commonweal.

What’s stopping us? The list is as long as a Donald Trump necktie, but let’s start with the president.

For someone as uncouth as our trash-talking commander in chief, personal cultivation can evoke images of raised teacups, curled pinky fingers and snoots in the air; high culture is a hedge-fund moneybags snapping selfies with a Hollywood celebrity at a golf tournament. In the president’s incurious, ego-bound world, self-promotion trumps self-cultivation. But nurturing respect for the urge to improve ourselves for the common good is as American as Abe Lincoln’s bootstrapping fondness for book learning or the heroes championing literacy and reading programs today.

Even so, rowdy disregard for soulful striving is as old as it is nonpartisan. “It’s a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few,” wrote New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, speaking specifically of today’s “campus radicals” on the activist left. “And it is being undertaken for the sake of radical egalitarianism in which all are included, all are equal, all are special.” But you could make a similar argument about radical populists on the right, in the way, as Stephens says, it “emboldens offense-takers, promotes doublethink, coddles ignorance … [and] gets in the way of the muscular exchange of honest views in the service of seeking the truth.”

Purposeful self-cultivation is the natural antidote to that kind of obdurate yahooism. No, it’s not likely to dilute the toxic delusions of hardcore white nationalists any time soon, if ever. But just as Trump’s hate speech has created a climate in which hate groups can flourish, it’s important in our competitive, free-agent nation that we work on a counter-climate — one that helps blunt our sharp elbows and creates space for sober reflection based on thought, study and regard for the importance of issues beyond the self. Civic-minded cultivation values individual well-rounding, dedication to craft and quiet competence. The rub, sad to say, is that increasingly larger segments of American society appear to want none of it.

Author Tom Nichols argues our “Google-fueled” culture has eroded respect for personal achievement in the public interest. Skepticism of the high and mighty is a time-honored and healthy feature of American democracy. Yet today, as Nichols says in his 2017 book “The Death of Expertise,” we’re no longer just properly skeptical about our experts. Rather, “we actively resent them,” he writes, “with many people assuming that experts are wrong simply by virtue of being experts. We hiss at ‘eggheads’ — a pejorative coming back into vogue — while instructing our doctors about which medications we need or while insisting to teachers that our children’s answers on a test are right even if they’re wrong. Not only is everyone as smart as everyone else, but we all think we’re the smartest people ever …. And we couldn’t be more wrong.”

It’s hard for Americans to cultivate fruitful conversation when we’re shouting across a mountain range of misplaced ego, let alone a cavernous income divide. For a majority of American workers real wages haven’t budged for some 40 years; the ever-widening gap between the rich and the rest now means that America’s “1 percent” averages 39 times more income than the bottom 90 percent; women on the job make 79 cents to men’s dollar, and the income split between whites and minorities has deepened.

Yet it’s clear the great American income squeeze has hit more than the pocketbook. How many people have time or energy to read a book, enjoy a concert, enroll in tango lessons or get involved in community building activities on a sustained basis when they’re struggling to keep heads above water? How do you fructify life in a world of shifting job prospects, burdensome college debt and eclipsed expectations?

“If we pull back from a narrow focus on incomes and purchasing power … we see something much more troubling than economic stagnation,” Brink Lindsey arguedin The American Interest. “Outside a well-educated and comfortable elite comprising 20–25 percent of Americans, we see unmistakable signs of … social disintegration — the progressive unraveling of the human connections that give life structure and meaning: declining attachment to work; declining participation in community life; declining rates of marriage and two-parent childrearing.”

“This is a genuine crisis,” said Lindsey, “but its roots are spiritual, not material, deprivation.”

Little wonder cognoscenti have touted a link between self-cultivation and self-preservation since time out of hand. In the ideal state, Cicero said, the individual “is endowed with reason, by which he comprehends the chain of consequences, perceives the causes of things, understands the relation of cause to effect and of effect to cause, draw analogies, and connects and associates the present and the future” so he can assess “the course of his whole life and makes the necessary preparations for his conduct.”

My maternal grandmother, Alice Brasfield, didn’t know from Cicero, but she saw the linkage between self-cultivation and survival clear as day. Forced to quit school at 12, she outlasted a gothic girlhood in 1890s Canada by reading voraciously and committing dictionary words to memory. When I knew her in the 1950s, Alice had cultivated a light touch on the piano, wrote thoughtful letters in an elegant hand, and relished handing all comers their rear-ends in Scrabble. She preached old school: reading until eyeballs bled, knowing some poetry, a few songs and jokes by heart, and learning to offer others something in conversation beyond self-regard. She had nothing against baseball, but bristled at my decision to give up the music lessons she paid for to dawdle, inconclusively, on the diamond.

Of course, it was easier working toward such high-minded goals in the booming economy of 60 years ago when earning a living wasn’t as much of an uphill fight as it can be today, and time moved at its less frantic, pre-digital pace.

Like Alice, millions of working-class Americans, who had scaled the rough side of the mountain, saw self-cultivation not only as a stepping stone to a more complete life but a boon to community, as well. While looking forward to the Book-of-the-Month Club selection landing in their mailboxes, working-class folks read the news as a civic duty and bore the art of eyeball-to-eyeball conversation as a serious pastime. Even late-night TV tipped its hat to the higher culture, wedging in among the stupid pet tricks and celebrity buzz, literary lions like Lillian Hellman, James Baldwin and William Saroyan.

Empathy grew from the urge to experience a more expansive life. As Anton Chekhov put itin a letter to a troubled brother, the cultivated “have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see.”

Philosopher John Dewey saw that impulse as vital in a democracy, the goal of which, according to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in “The Elements of Journalism,”“was not to manage public affairs efficiently. It was to help people develop to their fullest potential.” As Dewey himself said, closing the loop between individual and community, “I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.”

Embracing culture allows individuals to see the kind of “dark psychic force” Marianne Williamson cited, as well. In his momentous novel “Invisible Man,”for example, Ralph Ellison, in advising us to remember that “the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that patterned was conceived,” is suggesting that power and entitlement, misused, is a force for social disintegration and blindness. Making the invisible visible, on the other hand, gives a society greater tensile strength.

Today, in a country riven by matters of race and gender, immigration and identity, and rural vs. urban rivalry, we’re at a historically delicate moment. “American confidence is in tatters …” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote. “As a result, we’re suffering through a national identity crisis. Different groups see themselves living out different national stories and often feel they are living in different nations.” What’s needed, as Brooks suggests, is for Americans to create a new national story to help us explain to ourselves who we are and what we value to the point of action, and that’s not possible without the exercise of civic empathy.

As college teacher, I’m hopeful we’ll get there. Young people I know, students and former students now in their 20s and 30s, are making headway against our material-driven culture by opting for downsized homes and more frugal lifestyles. Too often that’s out necessity, but the shift also speaks to a focus on “genuine” rather than “plenty,” and a growing recognition that unchecked materialism not only plays havoc with the ozone layer, but punches holes in the soul in a way that only psychic income, not greenbacks, can fill.

Wild prediction: Marianne Williamson will not become our next president. Nonetheless, her call for spiritual renewal — you might call it a New Deal for Hearts and Minds — makes good practical sense. Sustained work at self-cultivation opens the eyes and feeds the spirit, defuses hair-trigger judgments, and generally makes for a more even-keeled society.

So, here’s a message for candidates who do have a shot at becoming president: Turn your telescopes around — see the state of the nation’s soul, not as new-age mumbo jumbo, but as an umbrella idea that houses important but necessarily wonky policy prescriptions for fixing immigration, healthcare, income inequality, access to education and student debt.

For most of us mortals, cultivating the self, and adding our “light to the sum of light,” as Tolstoy put it, is an elusive goal. But it’s worth aiming for. At a minimum, it’s the best revenge for living in a savage world. It’s also a prudent bet that integrating more rounded lives into our society will give us one that works better than it does now. Our survival may depend on it.

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