Once in a while, I discover a book that makes a difference. I recently read such a gem, Paul Loeb's Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times. Loeb recently spoke with me by telephone from his home in Seattle.
Soul is the result of 35 years of Loeb's work examining the psychology of social involvement. It shows how ordinary citizens can do extraordinary things by making their voices heard and by making their actions count in a time when apparent hopelessness is all around. Soul examines how people get involved in larger community issues for social change, and it shows what stops people from getting involved and what makes them give up.
Take the example of Virginia Tech student Angie De Soto, who was the poster child for apathy. She was so uninvolved in events around her that she spent the night of the 2004 election chugalugging instead of voting. Later, after becoming outraged over assaults on the environment, she became interested in global climate change and created a groundbreaking environmental sustainability plan.
We are taught that a successful democracy needs an educated electorate. Loeb takes it a step further, suggesting that more than education is needed.
"In the personal realm, most Americans are thoughtful, caring, generous," he writes. "We do our best by family and friends. At times we'll even stop to help another driver stranded by a roadside breakdown, or give some spare change to a stranger. But too often, a wall separates each of us from the world outside, and from others who have likewise taken refuge in their own private sanctuaries — what we call the gated community of the heart.
"We've all but forgotten that public participation is the very soul of democratic citizenship, and that it can profoundly enrich our lives."
Loeb contends that many people do not get involved in causes and issues because they believe that they must be experts or must be as eloquent as Gandhi or the Rev. Martin Luther King. He points out that Gandhi himself said that engagement does not require perfection. Early in his career as a lawyer and long before he became famous, Gandhi was so shy that he could not utter a sentence when he argued for his clients in court. He lost all of his cases. After Gandhi discovered the right causes and got engaged, he found his voice, and, well, the rest is history.
People should not be impulsive when they get involved, Loeb writes. Instead, they should identify worthy groups that take on worthy issues and then get involved. He says that people need to believe that individual involvement is worthwhile and that what they might do in the public sphere will have positive results.
As many ordinary people who have been tempted to get socially engaged know, obstacles — some physical, some psychological, some spiritual — are everywhere. Those who press forward do so, in part, by mustering the courage to confront reality.
"If we're to heal our society and heal our souls — which, in my view, go hand-in-hand — we need to understand our cultural diseases of callousness, shortsightedness, and denial of difficult challenges," Loeb writes. "But even more fundamentally, we need to acknowledge and confront the pervasive sense of powerlessness that afflicts our society."
Of all of the books I have read in recent years about citizen engagement, Soul is free of the jargon and the self-righteousness common to so many books of this kind. It truly is, as the publisher states, "an antidote to political demoralization, paralysis, and powerlessness."
The original edition of the book was published 10 years ago and sold nearly 100,000 copies. Loeb revised it, he said, after receiving thousands of e-mails from people who had been inspired to act in their communities after reading it.
Social activists, veteran organizations, individuals and others who want to make a difference in their communities use Soul as their handbook. Many colleges and universities nationwide, including Eckerd College, the University of Tampa and Florida Gulf Coast University, assign the book to their first-year students.
Soul inspires people to act and to take a stand.
"When we do take a stand," Loeb writes, "we grow psychologically and spiritually."
I recommend this book to people who care about their communities and who want to live with conviction during these turbulent times.