The young woman, Sandy, sat alone in the room, pelted by dozens of balls of wadded-up paper being thrown at her. Written on those papers were words like: unemployment, $5,000 medical bill, roof needing repair, son with schizophrenia, heat turned off for lack of payment, no health insurance, husband with alcoholism. How did she feel with all these life pressures – even hypothetical pressures — hitting her?
“Overwhelmed and isolated,” Sandy said. I was reminded of the poverty of hyperindividualism, one of my most-read blog posts.
Now, the eight members of Sandy’s church who happened to be in our training group got up and stood in a friendly circle around her. We did the exercise again, throwing paper-wad balls of problems at her from around the room. But now they were deflected in part by her group’s members. How did Sandy feel this time?
“Not nearly as bad,” she smiled.
Sandy and I and three dozen others were at a leadership training put on by Metropolitan Alliance for the Common Good (MACG, pronounced mack-gee). But it’s shared leadership, peer-to-peer leadership, not traditional top-down leadership. The goal is to create positive change in our communities where it’s needed. For example, MACG recently led a successful project that helped chilly people in the Cully neighborhood stay warm via energy conservation measures (their older homes have oil heaters, and high oil prices had led many to go without heat this past winter). MACG had to engage key people in Portland’s city government in discussions over months and persuade them – in the face of much resistance — to collaborate on this project. Otherwise, homes would have stayed cold and unheated. That engagement and persuasion takes leadership skills. Those are the skills MACG is building in its volunteers.
When life’s problems hit us these days, most people feel like Sandy initially did when we pelted her with paper-balls: isolated and overwhelmed. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Earlier in our country’s history, the majority of people belonged to one or more groups, largely peer-led (today, it’s a minority). These groups form civil society, and in these groups, people get to know each other and form a sense of community. They have a shared focus of concern. They take turns being leaders. Churches, unions, Girl and Boy Scouts, gardening clubs, non-profits, and Twelve-Step groups are some examples of these groups. Besides accomplishing good things, civil society helps people feel supported in hard times. And, everybody has hard times eventually.
Civil society is good at addressing the problems shared by the private and public spheres. Unemployment is a prime example of the intersection between the private and public spheres: it’s a problem for both the individual and the society. Homes that cannot be affordably heated are another example: it’s both a personal issue and an issue shared by the community.
But here’s the thing: civil society in the 1800′s was approximately as strong as the marketplace and the government. It provided a check and balance on both those things, and the U.S. was envied by much of the world for having such a balanced, democratic society. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer, famouly articulated the vitality and strength of the United States’ civil society. But now, the marketplace — commercialism — is an enormous presence relative to civil society, in effect dwarfing it. In our current culture, people tend to see themselves as consumers, rather than citizens. We clearly have to consume in order to live. But, I’d venture to say that being a consumer first makes people passive and weak. And often obese. Plus, overconsuming ravages our environment.
I — and the folks at MACG — think it’s more joyful and empowering to be a citizen first. Diamond-Cut Life, in fact, is predicated on living joyfully while consuming only what we need. Civil society breeds good citizens, people who can step up into leadership when there are problems that need to be solved. I want to become a stronger citizen leader. I’m eager for this coming Sunday afternoon, when my husband I’ll attend the second of our leadership trainings from Metropolitan Alliance for the Common Good (MACG).