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Something Shifted

The past weeks have been traumatic by any standard. First the shock of the September 11 attacks, followed by intense levels of grief, anger, and bewilderment. Our leaders turned to the vast weaponry for which we have poured out our national treasure. And now as the US strikes back, we experience new uncertainties and fears.

But beneath the screaming headlines of a superpower roused to war, there are smaller stories showing a deeper shift in our culture. Have you seen them?

Signs of a shift
On “Fresh Air,” host Terry Gross asked John Powell, editor of L.A. Weekly, what kinds of movies people want to see now. “People are looking for what it means to be human. For how to live decently in a world that isn't decent,” he replied. The New York Times reports that even the most vitriolic of talk show hosts were showing some restraint.

According to Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a trade magazine for talk radio, “there's less of the frivolous, less playing to hate…. I really think this is the end of an era and the beginning of a new one in our popular culture.”

The polling firm Yankelovich reports an acceleration in the long-term trend among many Americans to shift their priorities away from getting more money and things and toward being with family, building community, giving rather than getting, and finding balance and
authenticity in their lives. Even among some financial firms there is a new message.

Marjorie Kelly in Business Ethics reports Walden Asset Management wrote to clients suggesting that we as a nation “curb our extreme sense of entitlement in our standard of living and redirect our wealth from private interest to the care of others.”

We could dismiss these signs as temporary responses to a shocking event. Perhaps, against the drumbeat of war, these notes will be drowned out. But there is evidence that they're part of a longer-term cultural shift that simply showed up more clearly at this time of national trauma.

New trends, new possibilities
Let me share with you what I see as four trends that even in these dark times hold out the promise for a brighter future.

First is a surging sense of community. In my community—and I imagine in yours—after the 9/11 attacks and throughout the ensuing events, people sought out one another for comfort, for sharing, and ultimately for hope. In the process, they strengthened the bonds of community. Yankelovich's polls show a widespread yearning for and commitment to stronger communities. In the months and years ahead, that surging sense of community can help us all reorient our economies away from the giant and impersonal, treat the most vulnerable with dignity, and create sustainable, gregarious, and joyous patterns of living.

Second is the expanded capacity for compassion. Our compassion for the victims of the 9/11 attack was instantaneous, and our responses filled the blood banks and relief agency coffers. Soon that compassion widened. As we witnessed heinous acts of scapegoating against Arab-Americans and others who look “different,” many reached out. In my area the Middle-Eastern restaurants were packed as people made gestures of support to those of Islamic faith and Arabic background; Interfaith services were held across the nation; rock concerts brought in voices of all colors and faiths; “hate-free zones” were declared in numerous cities. The growing understanding of the desperate condition of the Afghani people resulted in calls for aid to those much-embattled people and beyond.

Third is a greater openness to understanding and wisdom. In living rooms, neighborhoods, and churches, through the emails, in magazines, on talk radio, occasionally even on TV, I've been witnessing some of the most thoughtful, deeply inquiring discussions I've heard for years. I'm sure you have too. As we ask “Why?” and “How can we be safe?” and “Where do our own responses lead?” we're looking afresh at what has been happening in the Middle East and Central Asia; we're learning about slam; we're asking new questions about what it is that breeds terrorism. In the process we're growing in our understanding of the interconnectedness of the human family—and in our potential for wisdom.

The fourth trend is the increasing impetus to service. More than ever, people are looking for ways they can make a difference. The crisis has revealed the triviality of our endless pursuit of material possessions and focused us on the centrality of serving the common good in an interconnected world. The impetus to service provides a magnificent wellspring of energy for meeting the immense challenges ahead.

Something has shifted. A door to new possibilities has opened at a time of our greatest need. But much danger lies ahead. These shifts are real but fragile, especially in the context of a nation at war. They need the nourishment that you are offering in the many ways you are reaching out.

And in the pages of YES! we'll nourish these shifts. We'll reach out to feed the hunger for community, compassion, understanding, and service. We'll help you and others hold the possibility that out of these terrible events can emerge positive new potentials as we all come to terms with our very human vulnerability.



Fran Korten is Executive Director of the Positive Futures Network.

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