Like a grain of sand that irritates an oyster, I’ve felt something rubbing and scratching away at my psyche for some years now. We humans, unlike oysters, aren’t genetically programmed to produce priceless pearls by such vexation. As a higher species, and I say that with some skepticism, homosapiens will just as likely become angry, even violent when the comfort of our purpose is contravened. For us it’s a matter of free will rather than genetics; and that’s our problem.

As our numbers soar beyond 6 billion hungry, demanding souls, our will to cooperate diminishes in proportion to our numbers, I believe. You don’t have to look too far for a preponderance of evidence. Just look at the degraded American social discourse for the last half century or so. Like our country, Chatham County itself is riven with division along multiple fronts. Political, religious, social and moral distress have reached a degree of tension that many of us can feel a palpable sense of its power to drive wedges between us.

If you’ve read my writing before, you’ve often seen my encouragement of community action to solve the problems that beset our poorly managed water resources. Only plurality and consensus through attentive engagement by a significant number of citizens will be provide the requisite attention for our common watershed. Our republican is falling further and further behind in its ability to address our desecrated waters as well as every other crisis that we’ve imposed upon ourselves.

So what’ happening here? How has the chasm gaped so wide between us? We don’t understand each other anymore. We don’t sit down and talk to each other enough. Suspicion breeds among us. Ill will festers like pus around a splinter. Malignant emotion, name calling and blanket condemnation have replaced human succor and understanding.

But—a recent serendipitous answer to one of my columns has opened a crack of daylight in the darkness—at least for me. A self-proclaimed “red-neck” with a mutual sense of apprehension for our social dis-ease wrote me a personal email and suggested a meeting between us. I took him up on the invitation. At our first meeting it was easy to see that we didn’t agree on several issues, but we also shared many common life experiences. Most importantly, we share a concern about our country, community and humanity. I like this man because of his courage and I like him for his honesty, to say nothing of his talent and innate skills as a musician and self-taught engineer. His guts and basic human kindness have overcome the fear of sitting down with the “other”. I rejoice at what I hope will become a friendship.

If we think we’re going to get through this century without collective participation in this kind of dialogue, we’re mistaken. If we allow our leaders to act as our surrogates, it will prove a grave error. Especially beware of any leader who is eager to tell you who your enemies are. They should draw your jaundiced gaze and firm correction. Humans such as these are simply trying to accrue power to themselves.

Identify someone to whom you know you are opposed, and sit down with them and learn to understand each other. It’s all coming down to you and me. We’ve lazily abdicated too much power to forms of government and commerce that are failing. We must exert direct democratic power over our most intractable challenges before it’s too late.

Ironically, the larger our population grows the greater our need to cultivate strong local community through engaging those different from ourselves. This is the surest survival strategy for our coming trials. We must moderate ourselves now or be devoured by our extremes. Crunch time has arrived. This is why we’re here. This is the culminating goal of the human experiment, to derive one from many. Let’s forsake all we have for the pearl of great price that emerges out of our irritation and shines with the luster of our potential fulfilled.