I turned off the news yesterday because I just could not take it any more. Whether you watched CNN, MSNBC, or FOX, it was all the same. People pointing fingers. People shouting at people and not listening to each other. And much worse than that. As I shut down the vitriol on my TV, I asked how has this nation devolved into an us versus them mentality.
It was not always that way. We once had civil discourse and the social intermediaries (clubs, little league, community centers, and other institutions) that brought us together. I think the late Charles Krauthammer who both served as Walter Mondale’s speech writer and conservative commentator, said it best: “Of course we are shaped by our milieu. But the most formative, most important influence on the individual is not government. It is civil society, those elements of the collectivity that lie outside government: family, neighborhood, church, Rotary club, PTA, the voluntary associations that Tocqueville understood to be the genius of America and source of its energy and freedom.”
We have gotten extreme, but it was not always that way. We did not always launch ourselves into the opposing sides of Twitter feeds at the drop of a hat, but rather listened to the opposing sides of people we respected in our community. We sought out the commonalities that brought us together and the spark of humanity that resides in each one of us. We listened to one another and learned from one another at the PTAs, Little Leagues, Community Centers and institutions of everyday life. We need to return to these social institutions and turn away from the emptiness of social media.
The best example of a community of sharing and caring is the town that I grew up in Crosswicks. My town’s main claim to fame was it was the launchpad of the revolution – the Battle of Trenton that won us a country and a nation. In that town of Crosswicks, we had a mix of liberals and conservatives that all got along and progressed for the betterment of our country and our community. Thinking about my hometown, I started thinking how did our nation – the collective Crosswicks – become so Crosswise? What caused the demise of the democracy? Simply this. When you cross the wicks (Crosswicks) of a candle, the light burns brighter. But when you get cross wise, the fire of freedom becomes extinguished.
So tonight, I will ruminate on what made our little hamlet of Crosswicks bring people together instead of pulling them apart. And the answer is quite simple – it was community organizations not affiliated with governments, Facebook, or corporate organizations. It was organizations by the people, for the people and run by the people. Let me talk about three of them:
- Little League – Back before the day of club Soccer run by professionals, we had Little League. It was run by volunteers who wanted to teach kids a sport and bring communities together. I am now 55 and can still remember every moment of every Chesterfield Red Sox versus Chesterfield Black Sox game. The whole community came together to watch the teams compete. There may have been some arguments on the fields of friendly strife, but what I remember the most was being with my friends, learning from my father and other parents, and sharing fun with the community. I am not trying to cut down club soccer which is still a unifying organization. But there is something different learning from the people of your community instead of professionals that are getting paid.
- Scouts – I cannot talk to Girl Scouts, but I can talk to Cub and Boy Scouts. These institutions brought together people from all walks of life for fellowship and fun. Both my mother as a Den Mother and my Father as a Cubmaster were involved. We got to learn how to compete fairly in the Pinewood Derby and Rocket races. We also learned how to develop our skills and help one another with our various badges. As part of a Den, Pack or Troop, you learned how to cooperate and care for those in your group. You also learned about how through differences and diversity, you create strength. I will never forget how our Boy Scout troop was able to take the disparate talents and succeed in a weekend campout.
- Community Center and Library – The heart of Crosswicks was the community center and library. In the summer program at both institutions, I first fell in love with books, learned how to draw a cartoon dog and cat, and participated in parties on Halloween and Christmas. It did not matter the color of your skin, your political institution, or your religion. All the people in Crosswicks were brought together to share in fellowship and learn new skills. In the end, it is really what you learn and apply rather than what you earn and deny that makes a mark on the world.
These are just three of the intermediary institutions that brought us together in Crosswicks. I will never forget the friends that I made. And, even 40 years later, when my friends from Crosswicks express their disparate views, some quite different from my own, I listen and learn. Never underestimate the power of Crosswicks and intermediary institutions to bring people together. Let us all as a nation, cross wicks and make the light of our common humanity shine brighter!