12-Step Program for America: Step 1

By Jim Selman | Bio


I work with organizations that are attempting to change. At the beginning of working with a new client, I point out what’s missing for any organization that has recurring or seemingly intractable problems: what’s missing is a different way of observing. Whether we’re talking about a company, a community or a continent, a new perspective always gives us an opening to create new possibilities, have new choices and take new actions: a new way of observing the world effectively gives us a different future than some variation of ‘more of the same’. We need to stop asking what the problems are and start asking why they persist. When we do, we begin to realize that we have a paradigm problem. Until we deal with that, none of our seemingly intractable problems—from staggering debt to unending war, climate change to the underlying causes of the mortgage crises—can be solved. Albert Einstein expressed this concisely when he said that sometimes our problems cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them.

Paradigm problems are like addictions. They are ‘self-referential’ structures that, at some point, disconnect us from a larger ‘reality’. Once disconnected, we begin to follow self-destructive patterns of behavior until we ‘hit bottom’ or have some form of crisis that ‘breaks the paradigm’ and opens possibilities for making other choices. In AA and most ‘recovery’ literature, the self-destructive behavior is understood to be the symptom. The ‘disease’ is generally viewed as a problem of ‘self-centeredness’ and isn’t ‘curable’ until one can reconnect with some form of ‘otherness’, usually a ‘higher power’.

Constitutional Democracy is arguably one of mankind’s greatest inventions. The creation of a government “of the people, for the people and by the people” is a relatively young idea—still only a few hundred years old. It is an idea that has inspired billions of people, ignited revolutions and formed the founding principles of our nation. It is important, however, to distinguish between the idea of constitutional democracy (for example our Declaration of Independence) and a particular Constitution. It is also important to distinguish between a Constitution and the functioning ability of the institutions that grow from it.

Our founding principles, our Constitution, and the government need to be aligned and functioning as facets of a ‘whole’ democracy. If any of these three aspects break down, the system as a whole breaks. This breakdown creates a paradigm level problem, because the Constitutional Democracy’s unique power lies in its capacity to evolve and change itself over time. The entire system is designed to be self-correcting. But when the system itself breaks down, then it (and the nation) can no longer work to self-correct. The nation and the government become trapped in a closed or ‘self-referential’ system that is no longer an expression “of the people, for the people and by the people”. Everything in this closed loop is organized around its persistence, for those with personal, institutional or political power are supposed to serve the people by keeping the system working.

Today we are witnessing the failure of our Constitutional Democracy. The ‘system’ is broken and everyone in the world knows it. Our leaders and a good portion of our society seem to be in a kind of ‘denial’ and continue to “do the same things over and over expecting different results”. This is often a definition of insanity in many 12-Step recovery programs. When we witness gridlock in Washington, the persistence of the “us versus them” climate in government and the media, the costs of running for office, the ideological fragmentation and acrimony in our communities and arguably the growing greed and corruption among ‘insiders’, it is not much of a stretch to see that the politicians and larger system are ‘out of control’.

As a nation we have become trapped in our ‘story’ about ourselves and our system of democracy, while being addicted to self-destructive behaviors that are at least analogous to (if not literally the same as) those of an alcoholic or someone having some other ‘ism’ or form of addiction.

Perhaps we need a 12-Step Program for politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats and anyone else having a stake in the status quo (which is all of us)—a program designed to help us ‘recover’ the capacity to create our own destiny and a world that can work for everyone. Perhaps we can confront and honestly face the larger issues that threaten our existence and break the structures of thinking and behavior that have captured us and blind us to the possibilities all around us. Paradigms change when they no longer work and when ‘reality’ becomes so bad and so life-threatening that we seemingly have no choice: this is what it means to ‘hit bottom’. How bad it has to get before an individual, a community or a nation ‘wake up’ is not a given.

We have a choice where the ‘bottom’ is. We can declare “enough is enough” and begin the process of creating a new paradigm. We can begin recovering our capacity to choose.

The first Step in a 12-Step Program is to acknowledge that we are powerless and have no control and that our lives have become unmanageable. Another way of saying this is that we’ve lost the connection between who we are and our behaviors and circumstances. We are effectively being controlled by something bigger than ourselves—in this case, the ‘system’. When an alcoholic ‘sobers up’, they discover they had lost their ability to choose even when they thought they were choosing: the addiction was making the decisions. Translated into our current situation, I would say, for example, that we have less of an economic problem than we have a spiritual problem. We’ve forgotten who we are and have lost touch with a larger vision for our nation and our people. Freedom, prosperity, justice and self-governance are no longer our purpose—our reason for being. These ideals have become propaganda. Our reason for being has become the survival of the status quo.

How can we begin to transform the ‘system’? How can we get out of this “box” we’ve created? How can any of us ‘little individuals’ make a difference when political candidates spend millions to get their jobs?

Perhaps the most important question simply is, “What is important enough for those of us who are committed liberals and those of us who are committed conservatives to truly set aside our differences and work in the service of some common cause?” What will it take to again put “America” first and not just our personal vision and agenda for it?

© 2010 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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