Being bent is a choice. So is behaving well.
When I was growing up, what it took to be a good citizen and good neighbor as well as a good parent, friend and person was addressed in school as both an obligation and a reward. Adult life was presented as behaving well, working hard and pulling our own weight, so to speak. This was the means not only to a good life for the individual citizen but also for the nation-at-large.
(At that same time, however, millions of us were too marginalized by prejudice, race, religion, sex and sexual preference, fear, poverty, or want of opportunity to have a fair shot at the good life no matter how much of the weight we pulled. In some respects, today, more people have access to opportunity, but millions, still, their lives so destabilized by prejudice, fear and poverty, continue to be left out.)
Unfortunately, there was little education then that adequately and directly addressed our responsibility for exercising the revolutionary-earned secular benefit of an emancipated mind or that addressed how our autonomy fits into the scheme of things. In the main, attention appeared to be directed to an education that would provide entry to “good” schools and plum jobs. What didn’t get enough attention was the education of the autonomous subject’s authorial voice, a role and obligation each of us in America is expected to enact throughout our lives.
Good citizen or not, life is messy, isn’t it? Hard. Hordes of people were gaming the system then and given our increased population, probably more are bent today. And quite possibly it has never been any other way. I can think of no time in our history that it has not been an emotional/spiritual and behavioral struggle to accept responsibility for how we live our lives as individuals and as one among many, a good life that depends on the integrity of our autonomous resolve and the stability of our integrity.
Why has it always been a struggle to avoid being bent? I’ll venture two reasons. First, because the living system that we each embody evolved in the no-holds-barred, wet, feast-or-famine, do-or-die jungle. Of course, over the millennia human beings, hoping to make life a little drier, easier and safer (from fearsome others or crises such as famine), established some ground rules: laws, regulations, incentives or rewards and punishments. Even so, it has never been easy for anyone to become less brutal (or less timid) because a human’s living system doesn’t adapt well to a terrain ruled by law. Think about it. Our behavior evolved to suit a beast’s life. Not the modern world we now inhabit.
Second, the moral life is a struggle because of the overbearing expression of the dysfunctional ego—an unrealistic—think over-blown—sense of who we are in terms of real talent, real competence and real character. As such, we live in a world where many of us lack a serious commitment to kindness, decency, honesty, civility and fair play as well as access to the education that would train us to such sensibilities. Accordingly, in this situation, we depend not on the stability of our integrity, character or competence but on cheating, exploitation, ostracism and violence not to mention mobilizing fake outrage to get what we want or to destroy the quality of life for everyone else if we can’t. You know what I mean. In today’s world, virtually no one escapes the vitriol designed by hucksters and other fear mongers to demoralize us.
To earn a real and accountable stake in the American enterprise, we must embody the responsible behavior and acquire the resources of the framework of the autonomous subject whose principles are to be given priority in our efforts to author our life. That is, in the interest of accepting responsibility for our autonomy, we engage the autonomous subject’s principled framework, which is actually an emancipatory mechanism. Built on the behavior of independent agency, moral personage and entrepreneurial biography, it is our strongest resource when we address the specific contents present to our consciousness and that command our attention.
The mainstay of this principled framework is a life-long unifying process seated in a now right-sized ego-function. The process enables us to accept the autonomous subject as the generalized identity on whose quality of engagement pivots not only the course of an individual’s life but collectively also that of our democratically characterized constitutional republic.
And, of course, after acceptance, comes the deed, the principled unfolding of the autonomous subject’s authorial voice or, said another way, the autonomous subject’s engaged and reflective selfhood. Without such identification, we’re likely, privileged or not, to be poor citizens, dispossessed of a principled framework and at the same time, part of an unruly mob.