WHAT IS the North American Vision and why does it need rediscovering? The details of this vision will be developed later, but the basic idea is that any culture has certain essential myths, issues, symbols and attitudes that characterize its approach to life and that manage to persist through many generations and much superficial change. Even deeper than this, when different cultures occupy the same land area, sometimes they also share basic visions, and one gets the sense almost of the spirit of the land speaking through these diverse cultures. When a culture is consciously in touch with and in tune with its deeper visions, it is like a person who has discovered his/her own particular calling – it releases a great deal of creative and integrative energy. While there are dangers in this, it is an essential step towards full self-actualization.
Why "North American"? Even though most of the specific material in this issue refers to people and activities associated with the United States, we wanted to use the broader term to emphasize our focus on culture and natural geography rather than political divisions.
What does all this have to do with our overarching concern with humane sustainable culture? Our interest in such a culture is not just abstract – it is something that we want to develop as a real way of life here and now. For those of us who live in North America, this means developing it in the context of this continent, and that context very much includes the cultural roots that are already here. Does or could the vision of a humane sustainable culture grow naturally out of these roots? Whatever the answer, it is something we need to know.
Yet this has not been a particularly fashionable question of late. We are in a time when, as a society, we have grown disillusioned with the visions of the past but have not yet found a vision for the future. The initial inspiration for the theme of this issue came a few years ago (before the IN CONTEXT project was born) through a conversation with Danaan Parry of Holy Earth Foundation. At that time, he was giving slide presentations about cultural change to various groups on the West Coast. In the presentation were a few slides that dealt with the American Revolution and drew parallels between then and now. It wasn’t the major focus of his talk, but he said it was the one thing that stuck out as the most uncomfortable for many people in his audiences. Perhaps it was to be expected in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, but he was surprised by the weight of negative emotional baggage that so many seemed to carry about their cultural roots.
If this had been an isolated observation, I might have ascribed it to some peculiarity of Danaan’s presentation, but I knew it was really only one small symptom of a much larger pattern. During most of the past, North Americans have had a strong sense of vision and purpose, but during the last decade or so, much of this sense of vision has faded. Vietnam and Watergate are the two most obvious symbols of this decline, but it runs deeper than just these, as indicated by the steady decline of our faith in essentially all major social institutions – from business to medicine.
Much of this withdrawal of faith has been well justified and I certainly don’t mean to defend discredited institutions. Indeed, there is a lot of evidence that up to a point this process of withdrawal is a healthy part of both personal and cultural growth, yet it has its dangers. While the withdrawal of faith may be well justified in each instance, the cumulative effect, both personally and as a culture, can be fragmentation, self-hate, cynicism and immobilization. As the old proverb says, "Where there is no vision the people perish…"
The key here seems to be that healthy withdrawal is a process of weeding one’s roots, not destroying them, and it leads in due time to a "return" – a coming home. We learn to distinguish between the deeper vision and the institutions and slogans that, for a while, have tried to give form to those visions. We come to understand that our best and most sustainable growth comes, not by leaving our roots, but by a process of clarification that enables the vitality that is still there to flow through with all its vigor. We also come to see that our roots are not rigidly fixed. As we grow, we can develop roots in new soil and old roots may fade in their importance, but we come also to appreciate the gradual, organicness of this change, and how deeply rooted the visions of our culture are within us.
It is in this spirit and with these hopes that we set out now to rediscover the North American vision.