In our day, most everyone recognizes our nation has huge problems: inflation, unemployment, poverty, hunger, homelessness, racial tension, fatherlessness, violence, corruption, terrorism, police brutality, government spying, debt, illegal immigration, rising cost of living, and massive loss of rights, just to name a few.
Many of these politically important problems are rooted in culture. We have a culture of laziness and entitlement. Of greed and covetousness. Of fear and ignorance. Of complacency and irresponsibility. We all see these things every day exhibited in small but significant ways—from the rudeness and incompetence on our roads all the way to the insane logic of bleeding hearts in Washington. But what is the solution?
Many would say that because the problem is national, the solution must also be national. Because the problem is political, the solution must also be political. If only we elected the right president or began the right social movement, we would see real change.
But there are major problems with that logic. We assume that because we see a national pattern of compromise, their must be some kind of over-arching national menace driving things toward disaster. But that’s not how the world works. We’d like to have one organization or one powerful person to blame, because that means we could fix the problem by reforming that one organization or removing that one powerful person. For example, people demonize Obama, but we’ll replace Obama in 2016, and guess what—the problems will still remain.
This was recently explained quite well by the musician Sean Sullivan of the band Warbler, in a Kickstarter video (of all things) promoting his new album, Sea of Glass. In his opinion, the real problem is not a single national menace, but what he called “aggregate sin”—the collective evil of seemingly minor individual compromises:
If you look up into the sky and see a “Flying V” formation of geese, the assumption is generally that each goose knows the part that it plays in that formation. But that’s not the case. Each goose is operating somewhat independently, just maintaining their distance from the goose in front of them. And that creates this structure.
That sheds a lot of light on how humans act, and how governmental structures come together. You take a step back and you look at it, and you might see the face of the devil. But you’re in the system and you’re operating selfishly. You’re maintaining that distance, and you’re a part of that shape. You’re a part of that form.
When people talk about shadow governments, conspiracies, I think there probably is, in cases, the evil comic book nemesis who is hell bent on destruction. However, the real problem is mostly aggregate sin. That’s what we have today—a wicked culture. And the formation is the face of the devil.
So true and lasting change starts at the root. It is therefore directly connected to personal responsibility and voluntary individual action. And how do you get to the hearts of individuals? Unfortunately, not through political measures or social movements. That sure would be a lot easier. And we’ve tried. And tried. But no matter how many laws you add to the ever-increasing, globe-encircling scroll of statute, no matter how many protests and marches you concoct, nothing really changes. The problems are universal. But the solution is personal.
In order to see true change, enough individuals will have to make voluntary commitments to live in an uncompromised and selfless way. The government cannot effectively force this. That doesn’t work. Because only voluntary change lasts. And corporate entities can’t accomplish this change either, because the change must be individual. What we need is a nation-wide movement of individuals committed to solving our national problems in personal, local ways.
That’s why I have given up on a merely political solution to our obvious political problems. This doesn’t mean I’ll stop voting. But the change is not finished at the voting booth. In fact, it has barely begun there.
Let’s have an example—poverty. Quit trying to solve the national poverty problem on only a national level. Quit giving exclusively to huge multi-national charities. Quit lobbying to have the government reform welfare programs, as if any of their efforts have ever put a dent in poverty. Instead, do something radical and individual. Find a person struggling in poverty and do whatever you can to help him or her. Buy him a meal. Listen to his story. Try to find him a job. Give him a place to stay for a while. Take a chance. Will you be burned? Maybe. But living in fear won’t fix the problem.
What if everyone in this country who gave to charities and paid their taxes chose to end the welfare state by also spending their time and money personally and locally to confront poverty head-on in their own communities? Would it be difficult? Yes. But it would actually have the potential of working.
And here’s the thing: if we got our own hands dirty trying to clean up this country, and stopped waiting on the world to change, we would effectively change politics and culture. Cultural and political change cannot effect personal change. But personal change can effect political and cultural change. Because true change begins at the root.