07/12/2010 05:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In This Other America

As we look out this morning at a bruised and bleeding country, limping along in the throes of recession, oozing oil, spilling blood, carrying the growing weight of debt on weakened backs, we might find ourselves looking back to Jimmy Carter's bleak assessment of the State of the Union, his "malaise" speech, the one that gave rise to the sunshine optimism of Ronald Reagan. America rejected Carter's bleak assessment and bought Reagan's sunshine. But we are wiser now.

Today is not the time for locker room pep talks or phony optimism. We're too steeped in the crushing blows of global information. On the level of sheer survival, the cheerleaders out there urge us to suck it up, to rise and shine, be hale and hearty, to get going and right the ship. The alternative, we're told, at least in the realm of action, is to slip into despair or worse, to froth at the mouth in Fox News irrationality and lies. Glenn Beck is giving daily classes in how not to behave, why not to fall into weeping and gnashing of teeth. We should be grateful for his unwitting instruction.

But fortunately there's also another America, made up of a growing number of people who are looking for stillness, seeking a quieter path to discover the genuine power of tranquility and the virtues of silence. They meet quietly in small groups, live on less, with less, and talk about finding another way to be an American, a way devoid of theatrics, while searching for a viable path to be a positive and contributing citizens of a country possessing a moral and spiritual core.

In another time, the 1840s, when America was slumping and teetering from another banking crisis, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who spoke to those who were looking for stillness and what he called "a place to stand." In an essay entitled "The Transcendentalist" he responded to those who criticized the so-called "dropouts," those who stepped out of the limelight or chose to find another way.

Here is how Emerson put the case:

It is a sign of our times, conspicuous to the coarsest observer, that many intelligent and religious persons withdraw themselves from the common labors and competitions of the market and the caucus, and betake themselves to a certain solitary and critical way of living, from which no solid fruit has yet appeared to justify their separation. They hold themselves aloof: they feel the disproportion between their faculties and the work offered them, and they prefer to ramble in the country and perish of ennui, to the degradation of such charities and such ambitions as the city can propose to them.

Sound familiar? The sad part is that those who may identify with this description of themselves are accused of being un-American, reminding us of the Sixties when the mantra was turn on, tune in, and drop out. Thoreau was their hero, not Emerson, who admonished his friend to take up his pen and begin to gather his thoughts. Thoreau did just that and we are the more enlightened for it.

Emerson goes on in his essay to describe exactly who these radicals are:

They are lonely; the spirit of their writing and conversation is lonely; they repel influences; they shun general society; they incline to shut themselves in their chamber in the house, to live in the country rather than in the town, and to find their tasks and amusements in solitude. Society, to be sure, does not like this very well; it saith, Whoso goes to walk alone, accuses the whole world; he declareth all to be unfit to be his companions; it is very uncivil, nay, insulting; Society will retaliate. Meantime, this retirement does not proceed from any whim on the part of these separators; but if any one will take pains to talk with them, he will find that this part is chosen both from temperament and from principle; with some unwillingness, too, and as a choice of the less of two evils; for these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour, and unsocial, --they are not stockish or brute, -- but joyous; susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved.

Being such a person myself and having the same as most of my companions, I find Emerson's description accurate. He knew himself and his own company. What is important is that he said that how these reclusive souls lived was crucial to the character and very survival of what he termed, "This yet unapproachable America," and meant by that phrase his conviction that the America he envisioned needed those who sought stillness, who reflected on their lives to find meaning and a fit expression for their insights.

"The Transcendentalist" is a challenging essay, not well known even among those who are students of Emerson, but it is worth reading. Most Emerson sites contain it. It is especially worthwhile for those who recognize themselves in the passages above. As was his practice, Emerson ended this essay with this encouragement:

Amidst the downward tendency and proneness of things, when every voice is raised for a new road or another statute, or a subscription of stock, for an improvement in dress, or in dentistry, for a new house or a larger business, for a political party, or the division of an estate, -- will you not tolerate one or two solitary voices in the land, speaking for thoughts and principles not marketable or perishable?... the thoughts which these few hermits strove to proclaim by silence, as well as by speech, not only by what they did, but by what they forbore to do, shall abide in beauty and strength, to reorganize themselves in nature, to invest themselves anew in other, perhaps higher endowed and happier mixed clay than ours, in fuller union with the surrounding system.

Emerson speaks modestly of "one or two solitary voices." In this other America, there are millions.