The enemy inside us
Vines is the executive producer of the 2021 documentary “Dialogue Lab: America” and president/CEO of Ideos Institute. Molineaux is co-publisher of The Fulcrum and president/CEO of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund.
What if our neurology is hard-wired to thwart our brightest dreams? What if the enemy is inside us?
The American ethos – the idea that we, the people, could self-govern – was radical in the 1770s. In drafting the U.S. Constitution, multiple forms of governance were studied, much of which was included in the final draft. Cultural influences were taken from commonly recognized Greek and Roman efforts, the English rule of law, and a dash of French philosophy. Less well-known, however, is the influence of the indignous people, specifically the Iroquois, Shawney, Cherokee and Mohawk in the separation of civilian and military powers plus individual rights. This amalgamation of ideas, codified in our Constitution, sparked both a political and social culture that celebrated the tackling of the unknown with aplomb and agency and the pursuit of new ideas about what it meant to be a progressive and diverse Republic.
So what has changed?
Today, we, the people, seem to push away from the unknown and uncomfortable to cling to promises of security and safety. We’ve discarded collective critical thinking to become critics of what we don’t like. We prefer the devil we know over the adventure of discovery, innovation and the creation of something new. We have lost our curiosity and empathy for others to tribal fears. This is the enemy inside us – our tribal tendencies to “other” those unfamiliar to ourselves, discount expertise we don’t agree with and surround ourselves with similar-minded people.
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Overwhelming all of this is a burgeoning desire within the larger public for this level of progress to stop. To return to something more familiar, more stable. More than anything else, the desire for predictability continues to erode the ethos which once made America unique. That the pursuit of greatness, an end result that must and should always remain elusive, is the essence of our uniqueness. Even our self-proclaimed exceptionalism.
And so it is in this time of multiple crises – pandemic fallout, failing systems, inflation, climate crises, polarized media and politicians, et al – that we need our American ingenuity and experimentation more than ever. To delay in this effort is fraught with challenges, namely the ability for those who falsely promise a return to the familiar and the certain to assume positions of power and influence, all the while chipping away at the foundational DNA that defines who we are as a nation. And yes, this includes the nearly imperceptible deterioration of our democracy. Though today that which was once imperceptible has become abundantly clear, including that which the framers of the U.S. labeled “mob rule.” The mob mentality demanding predictability has short-changed our innovative tendencies. Physical violence is rising – all because we are afraid of an uncertain future and our roles in it. Yes, the enemy is indeed within us.
Contrast our current societal woes to a culture that is inherently empathic. A society where those who are curious, intellectually humble, progress-oriented and questioning in pursuit of the unknown are heralded as leaders and influencers. In the past, this is what has defined America. It’s how we tackled the Great Depression, recovered economically following World War II, motivated the civil rights movement and landed on the moon. All periods of incredible change and uncertainty. The leaders who shepherded us through these fragile periods must have also found great comfort in knowing that behind them lay fellow countrymen moved by courage and grit, and undergirded by the knowledge that a nation of fearless pilgrims were poised and ready to meet the challenges ahead.
We must ask ourselves these questions: Will there be continued will to strive for an ever greater future? And is there equal will to disarm the enemy inside us, to pursue greatness once again?
If there is the will to face ourselves, we’ve compiled a list of principles and actions that can help get us back on track:
- First, set aside fear. It may or may not be real. It’s not helpful.
- Be curious – about others, about solutions, about failed attempts. Ask questions.
- Be humble – no one has the answers right now, but some people have studied the problem and others have proposed solutions.
- Be additive and iterative – doing the same thing over and over is not helpful, but an adaptation or iteration could be! Build upon, don’t tear down. Learn from failures.
- Be empathic with others, but not at your own expense. Help when you can and let go when you can’t help. We have enough collective trauma in the world, so take care of yourself in a way that prevents you from being traumatized by our world.
- Look for the helpers – many empathic people find safety and security in a time of chaos – leaning into the uncertainty and providing pathways to a brighter future and a path out of the chaos.
Without the American ethos that made our country great, where would we be today? It is our embrace of the unknown, of gathering input from stakeholders and iterating from failure to success that led to our unique, and arguably influential, place in the world. We can make America great – not in its actual greatness, but in our tireless pursuit of it.
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