I hope that this letter will help simplify and give order to my views on the present state of affairs. In it I also want to consider some important aspects of the relationships between individuals and between individuals and the social environments in which they live.
1. Change and Crisis
In this time of great change, individuals, institutions, and society all find themselves in crisis. And the pace of change—and the intensity of these individual, institutional, and social crises—will only continue to increase. This portends further upheaval, which broad sectors of society will perhaps be unable to assimilate.
Today’s transformations are taking unexpected turns, resulting in widespread disorientation about the future and confusion about what to do in the present. In reality, it is not change itself that is so disturbing to us, because we can recognize many positive things in contemporary developments. What is troubling is not knowing in what direction these changes are heading, and therefore not knowing in what direction to orient our actions.
3. Crisis in the Life of Each Person
Everything around us—the economy, technology, society—is undergoing enormous transformations. But above all it is in our own lives that we experience these changes: in our workplaces, our families, our friendships, and not least in our ideas and what we believe about the world, other people, and ourselves. Amid the rush of events we find many things exciting, yet other things confuse or paralyze us. Our own behavior and that of others all too often seems incoherent, contradictory, and as lacking in any clear direction as the events around us.
4. The Need to Give Direction to One’s Life
Since change is inevitable, it is of fundamental importance to guide it, and there is no other way than to begin with oneself. One must find in oneself a direction for this chaotic change, whose future course is unknown to us.
5. Direction in Life and Changing One’s Situation
Individuals do not exist in isolation. Thus, if they truly give their lives direction, this will change their relationships with the people in their families, their workplaces, and everywhere they carry out their activities. Giving direction to one’s life is not simply a psychological problem that can be resolved within the head of an isolated individual; on the contrary, it is resolved by changing—through coherent behavior—the situation in which one lives with others.
When we become excited by our successes or depressed by our failures, when we make plans for the future or resolve to change our lives, we often forget the fundamental point: The situation in which we live involves relationships with others. We can neither explain what happens to us nor make any choice in our lives without also including certain people and concrete social ambits. Those people who are of special importance to us and the social environments in which we live place each of us in a particular situation, and it is from this situation that each of us thinks, feels, and acts. To deny this or to disregard it creates enormous difficulties both for us and for others. One’s freedom to choose and to act is delimited by these circumstances. Any change one desires to make cannot be proposed in the abstract but only with reference to the actual situation in which one lives.
6. Coherent Behavior
If my thoughts, my feelings, and my actions are in agreement, if they all go in the same direction, if my actions do not create contradiction with what I feel, then I can say that my life has coherence. But though I am true to myself, this does not necessarily mean I am being true to those in my immediate environment. I still need to achieve this same coherence in my relationships with others, treating them the way I would like to be treated.
Of course there can also be a destructive type of coherence, which can be seen in those who are racists or fanatics or in those who are violent or exploit others. It is clear, however, that their relationships with others are incoherent, because they treat others very differently from the way they desire to be treated themselves.
That unity of thought, feeling, and action, that unity between the treatment one asks from others and the treatment one gives to others—these are ideals that are not realized in everyday life. Here is the point: to adjust one’s conduct in the direction of these personal and social proposals. These values, taken seriously, give life a direction that is independent of any difficulties one may face in realizing them. If we observe things well—not in static but in dynamic—we will understand this as a strategy that continues to gain ground as time passes. Here, one’s intentions do matter (even though one’s actions may at first not coincide with them), especially if these intentions are sustained, perfected, and extended. These images of what one wants to achieve are firm references that give direction in every situation.
What is being proposed here is not very complicated. We are not surprised, for example, when people dedicate their lives to pursuing great wealth, even when they lack any tangible reason to believe they will achieve it. This ideal spurs them on, despite the absence of relevant results. Why, then, is it so difficult to understand that these ideals of how to treat others and personal coherence can provide a clear direction for human conduct? And these ideals can give one direction despite the fact that these times are neither conducive to having the treatment one asks correspond to the treatment one gives nor to having one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions be in agreement.
7. The Two Proposals: Coherence and Solidarity
To have one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions go in the same direction and to treat others as one wants to be treated—these two proposals are so simple they can be viewed as mere naiveté by people accustomed to the usual complications. Yet underlying this seeming simplicity lies a new scale of values in which coherence comes first, a new morality in which one’s actions are not a matter of indifference, and a new aspiration that entails a consistent effort to give direction to human events. Behind this apparent simplicity one is either staking one’s future on a meaning in life that will be truly evolutionary, both personally and for society, or one is following a path that leads toward disintegration.
As mistrust, isolation, and individualism increase, they erode the fabric of society, and we can no longer rely on old values to provide the cohesion among people that is so essential. The traditional solidarity found among members of a given class, or within associations, institutions, and groups is rapidly being replaced by a savage competition, from which not even the closest bonds of marriage or family escape.
As this process mechanically proceeds to dismantle social structures, a new solidarity cannot arise out of the ideas and conduct of a world that has already disappeared—it can come only from the concrete need that people have to give direction to their lives. And this new direction will entail changing the environment in which they live. This change in their environment, if it is to be true and profound, cannot be imposed from without, cannot be set in motion by external laws or any form of fanaticism. It can only come from the power of shared opinion and minimum collective action with the people who make up the social environment around them.
8. Reaching All of Society Starting with One’s Immediate Environment
We know that by changing our situation in positive ways we will be influencing our surroundings, and that others will share this point of view and form of action, giving rise to a growing system of human relationships.
So we must ask ourselves: Why should we go beyond the immediate environment where we begin? The answer is simple: To be coherent with the proposal of treating others in the same way we want them to treat us. Why wouldn’t we pass on to others something that has proven to be of fundamental importance in our own lives?
If our influence begins to expand, it means that our relationships and therefore the constituents of our environment have also developed. This is a factor we need to bear in mind right from the first, because even though our actions may begin in one small area, their influence can project very far. And there is nothing strange in thinking that others will decide to accompany us in this direction. After all, the great movements throughout history have followed this same course—logically, they began small, and then developed because people felt these movements interpreted their needs and concerns.
If we are coherent with these proposals we will act in our immediate environments, but with our vision placed on the progress of society as a whole. For what meaning is there in speaking of a global crisis that must be faced with resolution if society is only going to end up as isolated individuals for whom others have no importance?
Out of common need, then, those working together to give a new direction to their lives and to events will create environments for direct communication where they can discuss these themes. Later on, as awareness spreads through many means of communication, this surface of contact will grow. A similar process will occur as people create organizations and institutions compatible with this proposal.
9. The Social Environment in Which One Lives
We have already seen that the impact of this swift and unpredictable change is experienced as crisis—the crisis with which individuals, institutions, and entire societies are now struggling. So, although it is indispensable to give direction to developments, how can one do this, subject as one is to the action of larger events? Clearly, one can direct only the most immediate and nearby aspects of one’s life, and not the operation of institutions or society at large. Nor is it easy attempting to give direction to one’s life, since no one lives in isolation; everyone lives in some situation, in some environment.
We may think of this environment as the universe, the Earth, our country, state, province, and so on. each of us has, however, an immediate environment—the environment in which we carry out our daily activities. This is the environment of our family, our work, our friendships, and our other activities. We live in a situation of relationship with other people, and this is our particular world, which we cannot avoid, as it acts on us and we on it in a direct way. Any influence we have is on this immediate environment, and both the influence we exercise on it and the influence it exerts on us are in turn affected by more general situations—by the current disorientation and crisis.
10. Coherence as a Direction in Life
If we want to give a new direction to events, we must begin with our own lives and include the immediate environment in which we carry out our activities. But the question remains: To what direction will we aspire? Without doubt to one that provides coherence and support in such a changeable and unpredictable environment.
To propose that one will think, feel, and act in the same direction is to propose coherence in life. Yet putting this into practice is not easy, because the situations in which we find ourselves are not entirely of our own choosing. We find ourselves doing the things we need to do, even though these things may not at all agree with what we think or what we feel. We find ourselves in situations over which we have no control. To act with coherence, then, is more an intention than a fact—it is a direction, which if kept before us guides our lives toward increasingly coherent conduct.
Clearly, it is only by exerting influence within one’s own immediate environment that one will be able to change any aspect of the overall situation in which one lives. In so doing, one will be giving a new direction to one’s relationships with others, and they will be included in this new conduct.
Some may object that their employment or other factors cause them to frequently change their residence or other aspects of their lives. But this in no way affects the proposal, for every person is always in some situation, is always part of some environment. If we are striving for coherence, the treatment we afford others must be of the same type as the treatment we demand for ourselves, no matter where we are.
There are, then, in these two proposals the basic elements for giving direction to our lives to the extent of our strength and possibilities. Coherence advances as a person is increasingly able to think, feel, and act in the same direction. And we extend this coherence to others—because only in this way are we ourselves being coherent. And in extending this to others we begin to treat other people the way we would like to be treated. Coherence and solidarity are directions, they represent conduct to which we aspire.
11. Proportion in One’s Actions as a Step Toward Coherence
How can we advance in the direction of coherence? First, we need to maintain a certain proportion in the activities of our daily lives. We need to establish which among all the things we do are most important. For our lives to function well, we need to give the highest priority to what is of fundamental importance, less to secondary things, and so on. It could turn out that simply by taking care of two or three main priorities we will achieve a well-balanced situation.
We cannot allow our priorities to be turned upside down or to become so fragmented that our lives grow out of balance. To avoid having some activities proceed far ahead while others fall too far behind, we need to develop all of our activities as a connected whole and not as isolated actions. It is all too easy to become blinded by the importance of one activity and to allow this single priority to unbalance all of our other activities. And then, because our whole situation has been jeopardized, in the end we fail to accomplish what we had considered so important.
It is true that at times urgent matters arise that we need to deal with right away, but it should be clear that this in no way means we can go on indefinitely postponing the things necessary to maintain the overall situation in which we live. It is a significant step in the direction of coherence to establish our priorities, and then to carry out our activities in appropriate proportion.
12. Well-Timed Actions as a Step Toward Coherence
There is a daily routine we follow that is set by schedules and timetables, our personal needs, and the workings of the environment in which we live. Yet within this framework there is a dynamic interplay and richness of events that go unappreciated by superficial people. There are some who confuse their routines with their lives, but they are in no way the same, and quite often people must make choices among the routines or conditions imposed on them by their environment.
Certainly it is true that we live amid inconveniences and contradictions, but it is important not to confuse these things. Inconveniences are simply the annoyances and impediments that we all face. While they are not terribly serious, of course if they are numerous or repeated they can increase our irritation and fatigue. Without question we have the capacity to overcome them. They neither determine the direction of our lives nor stop us from carrying a project forward. They are simply obstacles along the way that range from the minor physical difficulty to larger problems that may nearly cause us to lose our way. While there are important differences in degree among inconveniences, they all lie within the range of things that do not stop us from going forward.
Something quite different happens with what are called contradictions. When we are unable to carry out our central project, when events propel us in a direction away from what we desire, when we find ourselves trapped in a vicious circle from which we cannot escape, when we do not have even minimal control over our lives, then we are ensnared by contradiction.
In the stream of life, contradiction is a sort of countercurrent that carries us backward in hopeless retreat. This is incoherence in its crudest form. In a situation of contradiction, one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions oppose each other. And though in spite of everything it is always possible to give direction to one’s life, one has to know when to act.
In the routine of daily life we often lose sight of whether or not our actions are timely, and this occurs because so many of the things we do are codified or set by convention. But when it comes to major difficulties and contradictions, we must not make decisions that expose us to catastrophe.
In general terms, what we need to do is to retreat when faced with a great force, and then advance with resolution when this force has weakened. There is, however, a great difference between the timid, who retreat or become paralyzed when faced with any difficulty, and those who take action to surmount the difficulties, knowing that it is precisely by advancing that they will be able to get through the problems.
At times it may happen that it is not possible to go forward immediately because a problem arises that is beyond our strength, and to tackle it head on without due care could lead to disaster. This problem we are facing that is now so large is also, however, dynamic, and the relationship of forces will change, either because our influence grows or because the problem’s influence weakens. Once the previous balance of forces has shifted in our favor, that is the moment to advance with resolution, for indecision or delay at that point will only allow further and perhaps unfavorable changes in the balance of forces. Well-timed action is the best tool to produce a change in the direction of one’s life.
13. Growing Adaptation as an Advance Toward Coherence
Let us further consider the theme of direction in life—of the coherence we want to achieve. To propose a direction toward coherence raises the question: To which situations should we adapt?
To adapt to things that lead away from coherence would, of course, be highly incoherent, and opportunists suffer from a serious shortsightedness on precisely this point. They believe that the best way to live is simply to accept everything, to adapt to everything. They think that to accept everything, as long as it comes from those with power, is to be well-adapted. But it is clear that their lives of dependence are very far removed from what could be understood as coherence.
It is useful to distinguish three kinds of adaptation: being unadapted, which stops us from extending our influence; decreasing adaptation, in which we do not go beyond accepting the established conditions in our environment; and growing adaptation, through which we build our influence in the direction of the proposals outlined here.
To close, let us synthesize the themes of this letter:
1. Driven by the technological revolution, the world is undergoing rapid change, which is colliding with established structures and the formative experience and habits of life of both individuals and societies.
2. As change makes more factors in society become “out of phase,” this generates growing crises in every field, and there is no reason to suppose this will diminish; on the contrary it will tend to intensify.
3. The unexpectedness of today’s events clouds our ability to foresee the direction that these events, the people around us, and ultimately our own lives will take.
4. Many of the things we used to think and to believe in no longer work. Nor do we see adequate solutions forthcoming from any society, any institution, or any individual—all of whom suffer the same ills.
5. If one decides to stand up to these problems, one must give direction to one’s life, striving for coherence among one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. And because we do not live in isolation, we must extend this coherence to our relationships with others, treating them as we want to be treated. While it is not possible to fulfill these two proposals rigorously, nonetheless they constitute the direction in which we need to advance, which we will be able to accomplish above all if we make these proposals permanent references, reflecting on them deeply.
6. We live in immediate relationship with others, and it is in this environment that we must act to give a favorable direction to our lives. This is not a psychological question, a matter that can be resolved solely in the head of an isolated individual, it is related to the concrete situation in which each of us lives.
7. Being consistent with the proposals we are attempting to carry forward leads us to the conclusion that it would be useful to extend to society as a whole those elements that are positive for ourselves and our immediate environment. Together with others who are moving in this direction, we will put into practice the most appropriate means to allow a new form of solidarity to find expression. Thus, even when we act very specifically in our own immediate environment we will not lose sight of the global situation that affects all human beings and that requires our help, just as we need the help of others.
8. The precipitous changes in today’s world lead us to seriously propose the need for a new direction in life.
9. Coherence does not begin and end in oneself, rather it is related to one’s social environment, to other people. Solidarity is an aspect of personal coherence.
10. Proportion in one’s activities consists of establishing one’s priorities in life, of not letting them grow out of balance, and basing one’s actions on these priorities.
11. Well-timed actions involve retreating when faced with a great force, and advancing with resolution when it weakens. When one is subject to contradiction, this idea is important in making a change of direction in one’s life.
12. It is unwise to be unadapted to our environment, which leaves us without the capacity to change anything. It is equally unwise to follow a course of decreasing adaptation to an environment in which we limit ourselves to accepting the established conditions. Growing adaptation consists of increasing the influence we have in our environment as we advance in the direction of coherence.
With this letter I send my warmest regards,
December 17, 1991