Monasteries of the Heart

"All journeys have secret destinations," Martin Buber wrote, "of which the traveler is unaware." The insight is a striking one. The fact is that ours is an entire culture on a journey. We are all on our way to somewhere without a clue of where we're going or how to get there.

Only one thing is clear: Everywhere we go, there's a rending sound in the air around us. Something, we're afraid, is being torn apart behind our backs, under our feet, in the very center of our national soul. Ask what it is and the pundits will tell you that it's the economy or the political climate or global entanglements and free trade. And, at one level at least, they're right. But they stop short, I think, of the real problem. They'll tell you that it's everything except what people fear it is, down deep inside themselves, but are afraid to whisper for fear they might just be right.

The truth is that something is, indeed, being sundered in our time. But it's not any particular national initiative that's at fault. It is far more serious than that. It is the very fabric of the society itself that is being torn apart: What we knew ourselves to be—the way we went about our lives, our businesses, our educations, our relationships—is fading. Even the dispositions we commonly brought to the solution of issues have changed. We can discuss the pros and cons of torture in the public arena now and never even have the grace to blush. We can plan to slice food stamps for the children of the poor and, in the same breath, refuse to tax the rich. We can simply refuse to negotiate politically and still call ourselves virtuous.

Worse, maybe this concern for the social climate of our lives is not local. Perhaps it's universal. Perhaps the Japanese and the Europeans feel the same—their sense of national identity gone, their feeling of national control gone, their sense of historical confidence gone, their national consensus on national values gone.

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