“Washington Crossing the Delaware,” painted in 1851 by Emanuel Leutze, shows a bold General Washington on December 25, 1776, navigating through the frozen river with his compatriots braving the elements on their way to victory.* Ultimately, his victory led to the unique experiment that is Constitutional America. Its origin and authority are alive in “We, the people of the United States,” a guiding principle that echoes the Declaration of Independence’s intention to create a sovereign nation-state separate from English control and to secure the blessings of liberty for all.
Here in America we met the challenge and built our nation on ideal and practical values. Among them is our commitment, diverse as we are, to be, in principle and substance, responsible for ourselves and accountable to others for being trustworthy. But some 230+ years later, forging a nation and a state out of disparate communities continues to be a hard-won feat.
Aligned with America’s Historical Vision
We must recognize that even as America struggles and too often fails with leveling the playing field, it is constitutionally grounded America that universalized autonomy within its borders. What we share in common is not our ethnic or religious backgrounds but our embrace of the principles of liberty and equality for all. All of us are called upon for patriotic behavior to protect our liberty and the many principles and safeguards that have shaped American opportunity and progress over the centuries.
These principles are more than abstractions. They are alive and practiced because America grants and holds each of us accountable for behavioral control over our lives. And it is the promise of achieving a meaningful and rewarding life inclusive of utility, relationships, well-being and even free time that makes being trustworthy, responsible and resilient worthwhile.
To comprehend America is to recognize it as the nation that invented the path to human liberty and equality, even as it tempered our natural competitiveness through the individual and collective practice of liberal democracy and responsible autonomy.
Along with such opportunity comes, of course, America’s demand that its citizens manage the civilized behavior they are required to engage as they create a life of their own design. While such a demand for self-government seems reasonable and fair enough, each of us knows in practice just how difficult it is to manage the immediate sub-rational responsiveness that emerges in most any arena.
Everything else being equal, making it in America depends on our being convinced of the value of the Constitutionally supported American ego-function. This conviction is crucial because the structure of the American ego-function is the referential authority for the practice of responsible autonomy.
Said another way, our chances of making it in America depend in large part on the degree of competence with which we manage our ego-function. Competence here refers to our ability to rein in exploitive, duplicitous and other unsocial behaviors, to metabolize the embarrassment and disappointment that accompanies defeats and to get back to work in countless fields of endeavor, e.g., as employees, employers, homemakers and entrepreneurs.
Among the means we need to manage our ego-function is our ability to reset our determinism. This will require us to reconfigure our ego-function.
What does it mean to reconfigure our ego-function? It means that we no longer base it on inherited illusions that who we are is actually separate (intuitively and knowledgably) from our material selves and material reality and are thus somehow exempt from the down-to-earth demands on the American citizen. This outdated metaphysically construed ego-function too often licenses bad behaviors and cruelties and labors under self-righteous delusions in service of what it claims to be its special take on the truth.
And when we find ourselves more able to manage our ego-function, we also find ourselves more motivated and in charge of who we are. We can recover more quickly from blows to our image, from the slings and arrows of everyday bad news and from the numerous disappointments that accompany the fallout of competition. As a result, we find ourselves stewards of the civilizing discourse, grounded as it is in the elite range of the collective vocabulary of America’s constitutional determinism.
The development of our conviction in the ego-function’s value and the expansion of our skills in its practice is actually an enlightening and deeply felt fulfilling experience that energizes our desire to be as useful as we can be in service of the American commitment to freedom and equality.
Certainly, we all want others to accept America’s transformational terms. Unless we all temper our selfish and brutal instincts, how will any of us feel secure? Yet, many of us are not really looking to improve our autonomy. Our certainties, our prejudices, our apathies, our vanities, our willingness to take advantage of others, all make perfect sense to us. In other words, for the most part, we make our choices and decisions based not on our freedom and fairness but on the patterns of our determinism.
However, in service of achieving our country, we can learn to manage our autonomy and life by relating our behavior to America’s transformational terms, aligned as we are with its historical civilized vision.
This active contribution to a humane society of our transformed responsiveness also produces a very private reward. When we learn to temper the antagonism and rivalry common to the intensely competitive environment in which we live, i.e., when we take responsibility for who we are, something extraordinary happens. As the transformational refinement begins to reshape our lives, horizons of opportunity present themselves.
Being an American in this light puts us at home in the world. When we recognize that we are, indeed, affiliated and enfranchised citizens, we see that we can make our home by deferring to reason, rationality, objectivity, decency and decorum when we think, when we communicate and when we act.
*Leading up to the crossing, morale of the troops was low. Few believed that they could win the war and gain independence. But the morale of the Patriot forces was boosted on December 19th when a new pamphlet title “The American Crisis” by Thomas Paine was published.
“These are the times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Washington ordered it be read to all of his troops. It is said to have encouraged the soldiers and improved their tolerance of their difficult conditions.
I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 30 years. These classes offer a unique and powerful governing philosophy for practical living. They stand firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity to create a life of our own design. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.