I’m in Troy, Michigan to inaugurate the second year of the very successful monthly Constitution Cafe held at Troy Historic Village (and last night a book event for Philosophy of Childing at the Barnes & Noble in Rochester Hills, MI).
John Kulesz, a lawyer who is the masterful facilitator of this monthly gathering, picked me up at the airport and has been kindly taking me from place to place. He’s one of the coolest people I know, and has an extraordinary capacity for listening, and for operating from the very vital assumption that everyone with whom he inquirers is proffering a perspective that is sincerely held.
Among the many hats that he wears so well, John is a public defender. He defends the defenseless. On the way back to my hotel from my book event, he was telling me how much the odds are stacked against the poor. He told me a story about a man he defended who went through an absolutely exhausting, dehumanizing, Kafkaesque ordeal of simply trying to get his driver’s license renewed. What this man endured is simply beyond belief – except things like this happen all the time to the poor. While John was relating this to me, I could only imagine the depths of despair that this man unjustly experienced — and it is amazing to me that he survived it. Thanks to John’s tenacity, he did get his driver’s privileges returned. John helped him for free — or at least, he was paid by the enormous gratitude expressed to him by this man, and also a a meal.
Stories like this, John relates, are all too common among the poor, who are society’s invisible people. Their stories rarely are told. What he related made me think of the thoughtful law enforcement officer who serendipitously attended my event the previous week in Ft. Worth — she told me that the problem with most troubled youth is that no one validates them, recognizes them; they are virtually invisible. So the odds are stacked against them from the get-go. They have little if any opportunity to ‘child,’ to blossom from a healthy core.
The very core and bedrock of all our nonprofit initiatives is to give people of all ages and walks of life the opportunity to share with one another their unique stories — the questions we explore and the method we incorporate are the essential impetus for this. What would the world be like if this was an everyday part of our lives, and that the central purpose of an open society is that everyone is given an equal opportunities to share their stories? And that, just as importantly, everyone else has the open ears and heart and mind needed to listen — so that there is no such thing as an invisible person.
Consider asking yourself: What can I do to make such a society a reality? What can I do to see to it that everyone has the chance to child fully, at every age and stage?
I believe we should judge an open society’s merits — judge whether it is really open — by whether the stories of all those who belong to it, are part of it, are not only able to be shared readily, but have a receptive audience, particularly among those who are comparatively fortunate and privileged, so that each individual that comprises it, and society itself, can be all it can be. To the extent that a society falls short of this benchmark, we all lose out. If you come into contact in any way with anyone who in any way you realize is ‘invisible,’ reach out and listen, actively seek out the person’s story. You will be forever changed, perhaps even transformed; you’ll never emerge unscathed, in the best sense, from such an experience.
One reason I’m so thrilled by all the many, many Socrates Cafes held at libraries across our fruited plain is because these venues are often the best places for people of all ages and experiences to come together and share their stories. People are more visible as a result. That can’t be bad. To the extent that any of us, at any age and stage, lacks equal right (lacks the fertile conditions) to self-determination, we as a society are denied collectively the opportunity to flourish. Open up your heart and mind and ears. That in and of itself is a form of ’empathic and immersive action’ that can be life-changing. We need, early and often, to put ourselves in places and spaces that lend themselves to making it conducive for us to open ourselves up fully to the perspectives and experiences of people who see things quite differently than we do. By becoming privy to their unique stores of wisdom, we become more fully ‘human,’ as do they.
In a society that seeks to practice the Hellenic Greek ethos of arete — of all around excellence — duty to self and society go hand in glove. Doing what you can in your modest way to making sure that everyone has an opportunity to flourish is itself a quintessential act of arete.