Social Change

In 1964, while we were busy tearing down the leftovers of the social institutions of the 1940′s and 50′s – (civil rights, voting rights, the rights of women and the war in Viet Nam), John W. Gardner, a prolific social science writer, was thinking about about the process of social change. The result of his efforts was a book called, Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society – now a forgotten book of extraordinary prescience and wisdom.

Gardner’s words are even more timely today than they were when he wrote them. The revolutionary zeal of the ’60′s has fallen into middle-aged complacency and self-absorption. We have allowed the bankers and other capitalists to quietly seize the reins of power while we were busy watching NCIS.

Gardner’s book is a must-read for entrepreneurs and leaders who seek to infuse their organizations, public and private, with ongoing vitality.

The renewal of societies and organizations can go forward only if someone cares. Apathy and lowered motivation are the most widely noted characteristics of a civilization on the downward path. . .

Gardner explored what it takes – as individuals, as a society, even as a civilization – to counter “the dry rot produced by apathy, by rigidity and by moral emptiness,” which comes hand-in-hand with complacency. He saw social upheaval as necessary, a catalyst, that shook up the establishment. He worried about what might happen in its absence – something we are going to have to confront if we are to turn this lethargic society of ours around.

Everyone, either in his career or as a part-time activity, should be doing something about which he cares deeply. And if he is to escape the prison of the self, it must be something not essentially egocentric in nature… Institutions are renewed by individuals who refuse to be satisfied with the outer husks of things. And self-renewal requires somewhat the same impatience with empty forms. . .

Unless we attend to the requirements of renewal, aging institutions and organizations will eventually bring our civilization to moldering ruin. Unless we cope with the ways in which modern society oppresses the individual, we shall lose the creative spark that renews both societies and [individuals].

A society decays when its institutions and individuals lose their vitality… When organizations and societies are young, they are flexible, fluid, not yet paralyzed by rigid specialization and willing to try anything once. As the organization or society ages, vitality diminishes, flexibility gives way to rigidity, creativity fades and there is a loss of capacity to meet challenges from unexpected directions. Call to mind the adaptability of youth, and the way in which that adaptability diminishes with the years. Call to mind the vigor and recklessness of some new organizations and societies – our own frontier settlements, for example – and reflect on how frequently these qualities are buried under the weight of tradition and history. . . .

Gardner points out that the self-renewing human has mutually fruitful relations with other human beings. This person is capable of accepting love and giving it and is both capable of depending on others and of being depended upon. This person can see life through another’s eyes and be sensitive to what they are feeling.

The man or woman who cannot achieve these relationships is imprisoned, cut off from a great part of the world of experience. The joy and suffering of those we love are part of our own experience. We feel their triumphs and defeats, their hopes and fears, their anger and pity, and our lives are richer for it. . . .

Love and friendship dissolve the rigidities of the isolated self, force new perspectives, alter judgments and keep in working order the emotional substratum on which all profound comprehension of human affairs must rest.

Gardner goes on to explore how we can optimize our capacity for self-renewal by understanding its obstacles and essential conditions, the limits of individuality, how our attitudes toward the future impact it, its relationship with creativity and innovation, and more.

One wonders if we will ever return to the days of social activism and real social change or will we simply slide into oblivion like so many other societies before us? Half a century later, Self-Renewal remains a remarkable and prescient read.

copyright©Blue Lotus Press 2016

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