The City upon a Hill

Impact. A remarkably simple word.

In my images, I choose colors, backgrounds and concepts that have impact on the viewer. In my writing, I choose words and rhythms that create impact on the reader. I employ methods that capitalize on impact. I want an idea to resonate so pervasively that it moves, it educates, it inspires my audience.

But impact is entirely subjective.

The airwaves are filled with stories that impact our lives, every day. In my town, one of our local news affiliates uses the word in its tag line. Nothing elicits a Pavlovian response from an audience like impact.

But impact is only the beginning of any major shift in collective consciousness. I can remember the moment the first of the World Trade Centers towers was hit. I was on the phone with my mother where I had no access to a television. She was describing the replay on the news and I clearly recall wondering how such a horrible navigational mistake could occur. A few moments later, she said that the second tower had been hit. The knowledge that there had been no mistake immediately impacted my life and the lives of everyone in our beloved country. That day changed the perception and behavior of the entire informed world.

Nearly five hundred years ago, the New World had been claimed by the expansionism of the European powers. America was a place so largely untouched by decay that people wide-eyed with hope crossed a wild ocean. Religious oppression had impacted their lives that significantly. They looked ahead to a place that was bright and shiny and free from oppression, where they could live unmolested: their City upon a Hill. A lofty ideal, indeed. And they came to America and created the freedom they sought. They worked hard and prayed harder. They lived happier, healthier lives. The New World was so abundant that the average life span was well into the 70s (excluding infant mortality rates, which decreased as well)[1] and 40 was considered young for a man. A stark contrast from the many decaying, diseased cities in Europe.

But prosperity eventually gave way to corruption and the eventual extinction of a diverse and successful population. Over time, subtle changes, the result of fears fueled by greedy, intractable men, began to take root in people who had been programmed to believe that they could not think for themselves. They were led by people who saw their way as the ‘right way’ and the ‘only way’ to live a good life. A population which had once been guided by hope, and the peace and beauty of a better life, began to act in hateful, exclusive ways. The joy and prosperity experienced by the Puritans decayed into the virus of corruption that decimated a race of people who’d occupied America long before the Europeans discovered its riches.

Sound familiar? It should.

Ideas, both good and bad, gain traction while people are sleeping. Something impactful happens, and those who want to distort, will distort. They are programmed, from very young, sometimes, to believe that no one can be as right as they. They will take a word, like Ferguson, a name which, until just a few weeks ago, meant nothing more than son of Fergus, and turn it into a meme, and then a hashtag and then a movement. The problem is that most who decry the event that started the movement won’t take the time to understand what the course of that movement should be.

If only love moved as fast as hate.

Throughout history, impactful events have always done the same thing, but in slower, far more subtle ways. It could take months before the news of an event reached another city. Now, it takes a fraction of a second. And the definition of what news is has been grossly distorted. It’s now news that a celebrity decides that she loves a particular brand of boots. It shouldn’t be, but it is. And then suddenly, with one tweet, the whole world loves them, too. Such superficial behavioral changes seem completely harmless, and boots generally are, too. But the boots represent a bigger problem.

Personally, I don’t like the damn boots. There, I said it.

The problem is that the normal filter afforded by time has been removed. Anyone can speak and many will listen. Those that have a platform should consider the impact they have, both positive and negative, and yet, many don’t. It has become more important to be heard than it is to be positive. And just like the two year old, who will act out while you’re on the phone, or throw himself on the floor of the grocery store to get your attention, being heard these days frequently begins with deplorable behavior.

What happened to our City upon a Hill?

The once bright and shiny city, like many cities of hope before, has become tarnished by anger and hatred. One solid tap on the Enter key is all it takes. One word. And that grows into whole movements, and then violence. Trolling has become so common that anything positive is effectively buried in a mountain of intellectual garbage, while people trying to do the right thing, to make a living, are buried, too. The pall of too many “fifteen minute” celebrities hangs over the world. Why are we still watching the train wreck that is our collective consciousness and not trying harder to change it? What can we do to change it?

People feed off of bad news like vultures on a carcass and the media keeps bringing fresh carcasses, in neat 30-second, shrink wrapped packages, on every channel. The only way to escape the barrage is to actually unplug. We are inundated daily with negative narratives. It is no wonder that we are willing to bury our heads in the sand, rather than face dangerous threats standing on our national doorstep. It’s coming at us from every side.

Since the dawn of time the young have wriggled out of their cocoons, stretched their newly ‘adult’ limbs, shaken their fists and shouted their generation’s issue du jour, “I will solve [insert current social ill]!” These days, the yawps and yowls are loud and raucous and get lost in a sea of digital noise. But collectively, they have impact and in a few short days a single hashtag can be a force for good or evil. Ian Somerhalder (actor, philanthropist) proves that daily in his phenomenally successful use of social media for his foundation ISFoundation (see isfoundation.com) and for positive change. One guy, with a good message. Imagine the possibilities if there were more positive campaigns like his.

I wouldn’t naïvely suggest that the world could be rainbows and sunshine all of the time. There will always be predators, committing old sins in new ways. But if we continue to ignore the truth and focus more on political correctness than on our humanity, then we are contributing to the problem. There will always be people who insist that their way is the right way. Some of those people are so convinced that they are willing to perpetrate violence on another person for it.

Do we really want that for our City upon a Hill?

[1] ushistory.org

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