The TV show, Cheers, ran for eleven seasons during the 80s and early 90s with a tagline that made everyone feel good…‘where everybody knows your name.’ A group of unlikely friends went through some good times and some bad times while making us laugh…and these characters became part of our lives, because we knew their names too! Like most really successful TV shows, it captured some important components of society…so the public could inspect and appreciate them in a user-friendly format. In Cheers, the characters discussed all sorts of issues while they laughed, argued and joked together. They became a cohesive and effective community with and for each other. When we seek to accomplish the goal to ‘build a great community…together,’ we need to make sure our community is compact and clearly identified enough to be something like Cheers…a place ‘where everybody knows your name.’
Unfortunately, our country is moving more and more toward being a society of anonymous faces. It seems we know more people just a bit and fewer people really well…thanks to our tech gadgets. This may not seem to be important, but I believe our capacity to work together in community problem-solving is compromised significantly by this shift. Many times, we regard people we don’t know with suspicion and even some fear, especially when they don’t look like us, or speak our language, or worship in our religious tradition. So…it’s probably not a good thing that we’re increasing our ‘Facebook time’ and decreasing our personal ‘face time.’
So…how did we get into this increasingly isolated lifestyle? And…how can we make some changes in our culture to make local, face-to-face conversations more attractive and available, particularly to young people who have little experience in this form of communication? I’m not just being nostalgic in these questions…our public problems are so complex and inter-connected that they simply cannot be understood or solved without in-depth, personal conversations. Deep and sustainable solutions to these problems can be found…but not quickly, nor easily, nor in isolation. And…the quality of our connections will determine our willingness to do the work required. Healthy, effective and fulfilling connections will, however, require some soul-searching…and some humility.
These thoughts have morphed several times since I started this writing project…most significantly when the Tucson shootings shook us out of our New Year’s optimism. Since then…I’ve watched with great interest as our public commentary has groped to find some order in the midst of seeming chaos. In dealing with this tragedy as well, I’m reminded that the quick and easy answers we find in isolation are empty and unsatisfying. The answers we seek are within reach…if we decide to reach toward each other as partners in the American experiment, rather than shunning each other as enemies or strangers.
I’ve come to admire David Brooks as more than a political commentator…he’s recently transcended the normal partisan bickering in his Op-Ed articles in the New York Times to the point now that I consider him to be a philosopher. His Op-Ed today…‘Tree of Failure’…is a masterfully written piece…so the link is included here for those who want to read it fully. Give it a good reading…don’t rush…don’t expect easy answers…read with an open mind and an open heart.
‘Tree of Failure’ Op-Ed by David Brooks on January 14, 2011
Brooks concludes his Op-Ed with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr…a theologian and philosopher who grappled with the moral conflicts of the Second World War era. For me, it provides the deeply satisfying answer we seek in dealing with our public tragedies and dilemmas…it is in our genuine, patient and practical connectedness that we find solutions everyone can live with for our complex public problems. Ponder it for a moment…it’s through forgiveness that the flawed characters in Cheers could make an impression on us…and it’s through forgiveness that we too can find places ‘where everybody knows your name’ in our communities. So…I’ll conclude with David Brooks’ final paragraph…consider the positive consequences!
In a famous passage, Reinhold Niebuhr put it best: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. … Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”