The “inner lab” of American democracy
// By Jacqueline Brennan
/ By Mohammed Mohammed /
Take a moment and think back over the past few years. How have you been spending your Thanksgivings? A recent paper published by Science magazine indicates that we spent significantly less time sharing the 2016 Thanksgiving dinner table than we did in 2015, using data collected from ten million devices across the nation in a sharply partisan environment in the aftermath of a presidential election.
That is a lot of time (34 million hours total), a lot of avoidance, a lot of missed chances, and certainly a dodge at practicing the better angels of our nature. The strength of a nation depends on the ability of its citizens to respect and trust each other and the institutions (like those many of us have spent our lives and careers serving) that make possible the relationships among them. Our “kinships” are not just intended to maximize our material needs, but they must also include something bigger than ourselves. Thus, in the context of American democracy, unless we shift how we engage with each other and with our spiritual selves (however you define that for yourself), we will be facing consequences graver than contentious Thanksgiving dinners.
Arguably, this is a historical moment in America. It’s a time for all of us to look inward and, from there, outward. Although a real risk, this process will not lead us to narcissism and tribalism if it is spiritually grounded. Delving into the meaning of our own nature as human beings can yield insights into how much our flourishing depends on a healthy relationship with others both nearby and far away. In a sense, living in a democracy — a family or any other relationship for that matter — is like an ongoing design process without a “final” product. Our democracy deserves our active engagement and constant care — there is no room for complacency or taking things for granted. It is time for us to go into our “inner labs” so we can infuse love, generosity, and kindness into the “social labs” that we prototype with family, friends, neighbors, work mates, and others of our “kin” who are different from us.
So as we plan for Thanksgiving 2018 — and on the way to Upswell in Los Angeles — will we be brave enough to gather together in all our differences? It may not be easy, but we have the support of many fine people who are working to restore a familial bond and invite our better selves to the table. Here are just a few in a long list: Better Angels, Civil Conversations Project, Living Room Conversations, The People’s Supper, and the Practicing Democracy Project. You might even meet some of them in November!
Mohammed Mohammed is program director for Research, Discovery, and Development at the Fetzer Institute.