Why wait? When did waiting become such a political sin?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Why wait?
President Obama addresses Congress on health care

FACE to FACE POLITICS: In 2013, President Obama addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress to talk about health care. Photograph by Lawrence Jackson, released for public use.

NOTE FROM DR. WAYNE BAKER: This week, we welcome back our popular contributing columnist Terry Gallagher.

What’s the penalty on waiting?

Our idiom is loaded with proverbs calling on us to make decisions, to get off the pot, to strike while the iron is hot. And one of the worst things a politician can be accused of is “kicking the can down the road.” The phrase is usually taken as a synonym for procrastination, for adopting stopgap measures to avoid making the big decisions necessary to solve a problem once and for all.

Democrats accuse Republicans of doing it when they pass short-term budget fixes to avoid a government shutdown. Just last week, President Obama was lambasted by conservatives who say he’s kicking the can down the road by not dealing with the immigration crisis in a comprehensive way.

In a new interview this week, psychologist Dr. Robert J. Wicks recalls recently speaking to a gathering of U.S. representatives and senators when one senator admitted that he thinks the greatest problem facing congress is: “We don’t have enough time to think.”

We all face complex problems in public life, and in smaller settings, too, where comprehensive solutions are hard to come by, and stopgap measures work perfectly fine.

Social Security, for example. Alarmists have been saying for generations that the program will go bankrupt by some date, usually decades away, unless we cut benefits this very moment.

It turns out that we’ve been able to make modest adjustments every couple of years to keep the system solvent. Then a couple years later, we make another few modest adjustments. And government goes on.

So maybe we should kick more cans down the road, and give future generations the chance to tackle the complex problems facing our society. Or, when their time comes, to kick a few more cans a little further down the road.

What do you think? (Do you have enough time—to think?)

Try this discipline today: Consciously take a moment and either add a comment below—or use the blue-“f” Facebook buttons to share this column with friends.

Bias Busters: Is diversity America’s new Manifest Destiny?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Bias Busters

Three MSU covers of cultural guides

FROM WAYNE BAKER: This week, we welcome Joe Grimm, editor of the Michigan State University School of Journalism’s series of guides to cultural competence. Here is Joe’s first of five columns …

MSU 100 Questions International students guide front

Click this cover to visit the bookstore.

Besides July 4 parades, picnics and fireworks—this week will feature citizenship ceremonies in many cities. These inspiring civic ceremonies, where men and women from around the world become Americans, are reminders that we are a nation of immigrants. (And, here’s one immigrant’s story.)

The elasticity of the noun, “Americans,” has been coming up a lot at Michigan State University. Consider this: Michigan became a state in 1837.  MSU was organized to fulfill a mandate in Michigan’s 1850 Constitution that called for the creation of an “agricultural school;” and the first class of 63 young men were almost exclusively farmers.

Today? Now, MSU is a community of 50,000 students from countries all around the world studying nearly every academic discipline offered at major universities. The campus welcomes every race and ethnic group in the U.S., and MSU’s Office for International Students reports more than 7,000 students arrive each year from other countries, including China (our biggest international group at more than 4,000 students) plus Brazil, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and dozens of other nations. As part of the faculty of MSU’s School of Journalism, I just returned from a week of teaching classes held in Saudi Arabia.

As American Independence Day rolls around this year, I’m thinking that, as Americans, we need to rethink our vision of Manifest Destiny. In the 19th century, Manifest Destiny meant that America should stretch from sea to sea. It was one pressure that led to the acquisition of a large part of Mexico by the United States. That old Manifest Destiny also gave American leaders an excuse to conquer many of the native peoples living on this continent.

I’d like you to join me this week for a five-part series about diversity in America. And our first question is: In the 21st century, could America’s new Manifest Destiny be that of becoming the most diverse nation on Earth?

At MSU, we’re already laying the groundwork so that diverse communities can peacefully embrace these many cultures. I teach a series of classes in which MSU journalism students become “Bias Busters” and rigorously research guidebooks to understanding various aspects of our nation’s growing diversity. Professionals refer to this as achieving “cultural competence”—and that goal already is encouraged in major corporations, health-care systems, schools and other public institutions.

This series of Bias Busters guides we are publishing answer the simple, everyday questions we hear in coffee shops and at work. But the guides and this week’s holiday also surface some big truths. Here are two of them:

  1. While we may look different, sound different and have different traditions, our basic values, needs and hopes are fundamentally the same. We all want to live in peace, to be clean and safe, to go where we wish and to do as we like. We want this for others, too. Understanding this makes it much easier to ask the questions and hear the answers in a way that draws us together and not apart.
  2. Several of the 10 core values in Wayne Baker’s book, United America, really resonate this Fourth of July week. They include symbolic patriotism, critical patriotism, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Come back each day, through Friday! In the next four parts of this series, I will look at four of our most intriguing minority groups. You may pick up some fascinating facts to share at your own Fourth of  July party.

Divided America: Do you trust God or yourself?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Divided America

The Creation of Adam on Sistine Chapel ceilingOne of the main messages of OurValues.org is that, after all, Americans still have a lot in common. We are united by 10 core values. (You’ll find them all on our resource page). But when I give talks about my latest book, United America, I’m often confronted with skepticism and questions.

Why isn’t the family on your list of core values?

Where’s God or religion?

Values like these don’t make the list of core values for a simple reason: Americans are divided on many values, even though they are united on others. All this week, I will give you glimpses of the “other side” of my research on values in America: the values that divide us. Are you ready for the story of divided America?

The most divided value concerns moral authority: Where is the ultimate source of moral authority? Is it God? Or, are you the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong?

Many Americans say that right and wrong is based on God’s law. They also say that American kids should be raised to believe in God.

Americans are unusually God believing and God fearing, according to data from the World Value Surveys. I wrote about this in my earlier book on values, America’s Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception.

But many Americans don’t believe that God is the ultimate source of morals and moral authority. Rather, they say, what is right and wrong is up to each person to decide. The individual is the decider.

For you, where is the source of moral authority?

Does it reside in God and religion?

Or, do you place your trust in yourself as the arbiter of right and wrong?

Civil Dialogue: Everyday philanthropy?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Civil Dialogue
the live civilly approach

Click the graphic to learn more about live civilly inc.

Dialogue is words. Dialogue is action.

Everyday philanthropy is the idea that we are surrounded each day with countless opportunities to give. I learned the concept from live civilly, inc.—a community movement that began as a family project in 2009. I discussed live civilly in an earlier column. It was initiated by three young sisters who saw homelessness and hunger around them and wanted to do something about it. Today, we check back in with them to see how the movement has grown.

Does this model inspire you to do the same?

Civility starts young. Part of the mission of live civilly, inc. is to create opportunities for young children to get involved and serve their community.

“Harnessing the energy and desire of the sisters, the Buss family developed live civilly, inc. as an effort to engage children ages 5-15 in meaningful service opportunities. The evolution began in 2011 with the incorporation of the organization and since that time, through partnerships with many local and regional organizations, live civilly has embraced its slogan, ‘…people helping people, helping people helping people…’ ”

Formally incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit, the Moorestown, New Jersey, organization has expanded exponentially. (Moorestown is across the river from Philadelphia.) For example, the organization has developed relationships with the department of parks and recreation, public library, public schools, garden club, Habitat for Humanity, and many corporate partners and individuals to establish a “web of assistance.”

New programs have been established, such as the ExCELS Snack Program, the Summer Lunch Program, the ExCELS Homework Help Program, HELP Programs, Community Supported Garden programs, and much more. Every program engages children in outreach. “By providing support and strength to all members of a community we build bridges to span the chasms of inequality, misunderstanding, and indifference.”

The live civilly approach has matured and developed over time. It addresses a hierarchy of human needs: nutritional security, educational security, and life skills security. These programs “empower young people to care for themselves, care for one another and become proactive members within their communities.”

Do you engage in everyday philanthropy?

What’s it like in your community?

How could you adapt the live civilly model?

Civil Dialogue: When I met Aslan in Chicago…

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Civil Dialogue

WBEZ Chicago at Navy PierI met Aslan.

No, it wasn’t Aslan, the fictional lion in C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. There, Aslan is the wise and benevolent Lord of Narnia, generally meant by Lewis to be an alternative form of Jesus. No, it wasn’t that Aslan.

The Aslan I met is a cab driver in Chicago. I met him right after I was interviewed last Thursday on WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio, about my new book, United America. (You can listen to the interview here.)

The WBEZ studios are located about halfway out on Chicago’s Navy Pier. To hail a cab, you have to walk west to the beginning of the pier. I took the first cab in line.

The driver, a young man, was curious about what I did. I told him a little and he asked more questions. I opened up a bit more and mentioned that I was just coming from WBEZ.

“The 10 values!” he exclaimed, turning around to look at me. “I just heard you on the radio! But I had a customer so I couldn’t hear about all 10 values.”

I reached into my briefcase and pulled out a small poster of the 10 core values. I gave it to him. Curious myself, I leaned over to read his license, and saw that his name was Aslan. Aslan is Turkish for lion.

“Where are you from, Aslan?”

“I’m from Kazakhstan. Do you know where it is?”

“I do.” Kazakhstan is a large, oil-rich, landlocked country in Central Asia. It was part of the former Soviet Union.

Aslan went on to tell me that he has been in America for only three years, recently married, and has a baby. He is studying computer programming at night, driving a cab during the day to support his family.

As we drove through Chicago, I remembered that I had a copy of United America with me. “Aslan,” I said, “would you accept a copy of my book?” He was thrilled and thanked me several times. I inscribed it to him and his family.

Now, you may be thinking that I gave a gift to Aslan. I see it the other way around. Last Thursday was International Pay It Forward Day. I had blogged about the topic all week, and I was beginning to feel like a hypocrite—I hadn’t practiced what I was preaching. Aslan gave me the opportunity to pay it forward—and right on the day itself.

And, our chance encounter was a moment of civil dialogue.

Can you recall a time when a hot topic came up—and you were surprised at how calmly people discussed the issue?

What tips do you have for encouraging civil dialogue?

Civil Dialogue: ‘A Republican, a Democrat and a Buddhist walk into a room …’

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Civil Dialogue
United America and Sojourners

Click on this image to visit the Sojourners site and read my entire story about the Belfast Dialogue.

Is civil dialogue across the political divide possible?

It may seem impossible in today’s uncivil political environment—but I know it is possible. Why? Because it actually did happen. I call it the Belfast Dialogue, named in honor of the Maine town where it took place.

Could you use it as a model for civil dialogue in your community?

Today, I’ll give you a quick summary of what took place in Belfast. For a more detailed account, see my article in Sojourners. All week, we’ll talk about the real possibilities of changing the national narrative from divide to dialogue.

Judith Simpson, a practicing Buddhist, and Dorothy Odell came up with the idea of doing something about the political divide rather than just complaining about it. Both are residents of the seaside town of Belfast, Maine. Belfast is on Penobscot Bay, about halfway up the Maine coast.

Dorothy used her local network to recruit a diverse group of people, ranging from libertarians and Tea Party Republicans to liberal Democrats and Progressives. They met for an evening at Dorothy’s home. Judith, an expert in the practice of Dialogue, facilitated the conversation. Dialogue with a capital “D” is a group process governed by several principles. One is that everyone must put their assumptions on hold. Another is that the process must be facilitated by someone with training in Dialogue.

And it actually worked. After a simple meal, the participants sat in a circle, spoke, and listened to one another. They spoke about their greatest fears for the country, and discovered a lot of common ground. They spoke about their greatest hopes for the country, and here, too, discovered that they have a lot in common. The event lasted about 3 hours or so.

The group didn’t debate, said Judith. Rather, “the group had spoken, listened, and thought together.”

Dorothy said, “People left the evening changed. They were affected positively by the experience.”

As I travel the country, talking about my latest book, United America, I tell everyone that we are united by 10 core values, but we often fall short of living these values. The Belfast Dialogue is an example of how to live the core value of respect for others—people of different faiths, races, and political affiliations. It is a model of how to put this core value into practice.

What do you think of the Belfast Dialogue?

Are you surprised to learn that real dialogue across the political divide is possible?

How could you adapt the model for use in your community?

Death: What makes a good funeral?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Death
The Good Funeral Long and Lynch

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Our most famous poet/author/undertaker Thomas Lynch says our culture made a wrong turn when we turned our focus from burying the dead to relieving the living of the burden of grief.

“In the latter paradigm, the corpse became unnecessary and oppressively weighted baggage, an encumbrance, freighted with suffering and pain and sadness, better disposed of so that the mourners could travel light through their ‘celebrations of life’,” Lynch wrote in his most recent book co-authored with Thomas G. Long, The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care.

“Dr. Long and I have shared for years the sense that the religious and the community response to a death in the family had, for a variety of reasons, gone astray, leaving the bereaved hard-pressed to reinvent a wheel to work the important space between faith and feeling, body and soul, bereavement and belief, the living and dead” Lynch writes.

Lynch is not alone in preferring traditional funerals to “celebrations of life.”

“We have a saying among those who work in the world of bereavement, ‘The longer the driveway – the shorter the funeral’,” psychotherapist Penn Barbosa wrote in a blog post devoted to grief and bereavement. “There is a growing trend in America, starting with the upper socioeconomic classes and filtering down to the less wealthy – funeral services are becoming unpopular. . . .  Another form of this trend is not to call it a funeral but rather a ‘celebration’ of the person’s life.”

The trend is well-intentioned, Barbosa notes, and certainly a period of mourning should include time to celebrate a life.

“However, if we focus only on celebrating the person’s life, are we unknowingly excluding the necessary mourning that needs to be worked through?”

What makes a good funeral?

Do you prefer a “celebration of life”?

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)