Gates

The world convulses once again.
Stunned, we watch in horror as
Bloated dragons careen across her flesh.
Homelands are swallowed in hatred and despair,
As All,
The mighty and the frail,
Are devoured in vapors and flames.

Wave after wave of bewilderment
Sweeps toward us and over us,
Crushing our complacency into fear.
We see the monster at our door.
Panic runs like acid through our veins, and yet
We must not hide inside our walls.
We must not shut out the terror and the pain.
We must not close our Selves behind our gates.

Shutting ourselves in, to be free of terror and risk,
Is to doom ourselves to the other side of chaos.
Hiding from Grendel has always been an arrogant delusion.
Famine, war, disease and murder are
The rampaging agents of
Vicious persecutions,
Wanton bigotry and
Deranged greed,
And we must sally forth to meet them.

Hiding in our enclaves,
Closing our eyes and ears,
Shutting our lives away
In the illusion of security
Is consigning those lives to
Isolation,
Stagnation,
Desiccation,
Desolation and
The death of the selves we might have been,
Entombed instead in anti-life behind our gates.

Beowulf sought out Grendel and his mother, and slew them.
So we too must come from inside our walls.
We must come out into the light of the world.
We must seek out the monsters and dispatch them.
Then we can join the human festival of the living,
And set aside our lethal fear and crippling timidity.

Our world clamors with exciting diversity.
We must reach out to the teaming dance,
To the brilliant colors, to the ringing songs.
Humanity is a glory, and we must remain part of it.
We must throw open our doors to the vast adventures of living.
We must taste the startling honey and pepper kaleidoscope of life,
Inhale the inebriating fragrance of far ranging gardens, and
Join the choruses of the world’s joyful songs.

We must be our most incredible Selves.
We must throw open the gates and
Be of Our world

July 2106

grendel

Job Satisfaction – a Homily

Much advice is given about ways of reaching satisfaction in life these days. Do we feel good in the morning when we get up? Are we convinced we are eating the right foods? Do we make enough money? All the things that spring from our satisfaction with how we’re doing in the job of living. It makes one wonder how much Cro-Magnon worried about job satisfaction.

A phenomenon of the modern age is our concern with job satisfaction. The equivalent of concern with how the hunt is going for me, or how the berry picking is working out for you. How excited are we to go in to work in the morning or afternoon or evening? How likely are we to want to just get up and leave? What’s in the evaluation this time? Am I doing this in the easiest, fastest way? I hope I did that well enough. It isn’t surprising. You spend a major part of your life engaged in whatever your work is, including time spent thinking about it. And when should you start to think about this? Or more importantly, when do you start to do something about it?

Well, here are some things to think about. Everyone connected with your work has an idea about what that work is and how it should be done, each has his or her own agenda which informs that tangential understanding of what you do or should be doing, and each has her or his own way of exerting influence on you involving your work. And then there’s you; you probably know what your work is and how you think it should be done, you have an agenda, and you have unique, and more or less effective, defenses against the negative influences of others.

Now take a minute and think: Who’s trying to influence your work, what are their agendas, and how are they trying to influence you? Influencers, beside yourself, may be people down the chain, such as customers, students and clients; they may be peers; they may be multiple levels of people up the chain, such as bosses, principals and parents; and they may be funding sources, such as government, stockholders and owners. Funding source agendas of course may be influenced by feedback from the bottom of the chain, such as sales figures, recovery rates and test scores. Yes, this is pretty much a graduate thesis research topic, except no one teaches this in grad school.

In the short run, try this. In the center of a blank piece of paper write what you really want from the work you do in your life. Think long and hard about this. Whatever this goal is, it is what you really should be living by. This is what you’re trying to do with your life. You should be able to say this to anyone who asks without hesitation, and be willing to stand by it. It doesn’t mean you should leave your job if your situation keeps you from achieving this goal, and you shouldn’t stubbornly follow your own lead to the point of getting fired. Cro-Magnons’ goal was to provide for their family and community. Hunting and berry picking weren’t their jobs, they were tasks necessary in completing their real work. If you don’t have the means to carry out your tasks, you won’t be able to complete your life’s work. This comes with the understanding of what makes a life’s goal that matters.

But first, let’s get back to your paper. On the bottom half of the sheet write all the events, conditions, people, etc. that can or do impact or influence against your achieving the goal of your life’s work. On the top half of the paper, write all the events, conditions, people, etc. that can or do impact or influence in favor of your achieving the goal of your life’s work. Some may be the same.

Now a cliché: know your friends, but know your enemy better. The people and things on both the top and bottom of your sheet you must know best of all, and make them your best friends. Ask their help and advice, and take it with an understanding of their agenda. Then leverage that understanding to influence them as a source of support and resource. Use the same Sun Tzu strategies on top, positive, influencers and bottom, negative, influencers. Understanding negative influence agendas and finding ways to at least appear to meet their demands, while continuing to work toward your life’s goal, dilutes and deflects the negative impact. Meanwhile, understanding your positive influence agendas lets you capitalize on cooperative return. Cooperative return occurs when you contribute to a joint effort or project and ultimately enjoy more return than your equivalent effort would have yielded had you worked alone. This calculus applies to goals as well, and helps us understand what makes a goal matter.

Goals that matter are not easy to set and not easy to reach. We know that goals ought to be challenging, but achievable, and rewarding but acceptable. Of these, reward is the most often short changed. Goals that matter are life goals, and they should provide a life-long reward. If the reward goes only to the goal seeker, in the form of money, praise or class standing, it generally is not as rewarding as one might expect, perhaps in part because the pursuit of the goal has now ended and the seeker is a little purposeless. If reward goes to the work of the goal seeker, the sense of reward may be even less satisfying. The work is done, the worker passes off the ball to someone else who runs the goal, and as with a reward for the worker, life goes on with no further life’s goal. A truly rewarding goal is one that is achieved ultimately. It requires continuous pursuit and earns ongoing reward. And that reward is almost always enjoyed by something larger than just the person doing the work. Truly rewarding goals make the home, the community, even the world better places. The life’s worker collects the cooperative return of living out life in a home or community or world made better by her or his having been part of it. This is why one’s life’s goal is so important to get right. It makes life what you do with it, not just what you get from it.

Your job satisfaction, I’m afraid, is going to have to be up to you to determine, because it will depend on what you choose for your real life’s work, not just your job.

The Iconation of Everything

The abuse of the word “iconic” has become absurd. Its overuse indicates either a depth of ignorance on the parts of speakers and writers or a callous corruption of language inflicted on the ignorance of listeners and readers.

An icon is a thing inhabited or imbued with the spirit or meaning of something it represents. As a religious object, it might be inhabited with the saint or god of which it is an image. Thus, to speak to it is to speak to that saint or god directly. In a more mundane life, it may be an image that not only represents an action, but is actually a connection to it. Thus to click on a computer icon actually initiates a process in the computer system, such as starting a program. So an icon is a sort of vehicle or portal showing its purpose in its appearance.

In more recent usage, an icon has come to be a representative of a broader set or greater domain of sense or meaning. Thus Mt. Everest, whether it is the tallest mountain in the world or not, is an icon representing all that is majestic about the Himalayas or about great mountains around the world. Leonardo de Vinci is an icon of the Renaissance man as the ultimate of that ideal. However, all the mountains of the Himalayas or all Renaissance men cannot be icons of what they are. They do not represent anything other than just what they are.

If a thing or person is renowned, it does not make it iconic. If the person or thing does not particularly represent some greater idea, whether a characteristic of a greater set, a spirit of some power, an action of some result, a tradition of some group, or some other greater meaning than the thing itself, it cannot be thought of as iconic.

It is enough that we use Latinate suffixing rules to create trendy lexical redundancies at the expense of enriching our discourse with a powerful vocabulary. It eviscerates a rich language to serve up ground scraps as Salsbury steak. We are turning our prime lexicon into the haute cuisine of a fast food drive thru.

Iconate that Madison Avenue!

Participating in Community

Millions of dollars are regularly delivered to solving social, educational and economic disparities. That’s good, and much good is achieved by it. Research, training, investment get injected into communities and impact many lives. The scale of these projects is essential for what their donors hope will be achieve, but that scale is also a throttle, limiting the depth to which their work can effect change, and a regulator, narrowing the range of impact to a categorical norm.

There is another way that lives are impacted in communities lacking resources to move their members into the full light of American society. When one person enters the world of another and shares her or his “excess of resource,” that entry helps to balance the advantage of those less lucky. Such an act is not a gift, nor is it an investment; it is a sharing that assures mutual improvement. And because the resource being shared is seldom money or goods or materials, it is in far greater abundance among a large segment of society. These resources are such things as time, experience and compassion, resources freely given and yet undiminished. Such resources are in the hands of many people, even among those in communities in need.

In recent years, I have volunteered my time tutoring Latino students in my south Minneapolis neighborhood. This effort has helped several individuals rise substantially in their school experience. Furthermore, my tutoring is personally rewarding. I tutor in the spirit of meeting my responsibility of citizenship, serving the community from which I also benefit. At the same time, I am rewarded with the personal relationship which develops in tutoring. The power of an individual sharing time and knowledge with one or two others in an ongoing and personal relationship is simply astounding. The outcomes benefit all. The student benefits in his or her academic career, the tutor benefits in the rewards of appreciation and purposefulness, and the community is raised that little bit higher.

One-on-one volunteering is highly efficacious. However, by its very nature, it has a relatively small impact on a community as a whole. That means numbers of volunteers are necessary to make real and lasting change. This should not be confused with scale. Think “crowd sourcing” not “corporate sourcing.”

Scale, as we have used it in the tech-age, brings with it a number of wasteful characteristics. Scale brings bureaucratizing and administering. What are not needed and are not productive are more cadre organizers, schedulers, communicators and chiefs. These often financially attractive boss roles exist in plenty already. These administrators are not volunteers and seldom do the work they administer. They collect a percentage of the dollars that you and I are asked to pledge to their organizations–organizations that offer to help those in need. They sell us a clear conscience while shielding us from actually doing anything, coming face to face with unpleasant things, or getting our hands dirty. They allow us to buy off our responsibilities to our community. They are social indulgences. As a result, large scale operations diminish the sense of community and our role in it. Less good is accomplished in the community, more time is spent collecting donations, and donors remain detached from any personal or spiritual reward.

Additionally, scale leads to standardizing and mandating. The power in the volunteering relationships is developed by uniquely individual interactions between the participants. The individualized goals of the sharing mean that success is achieved by a continuous give and take on both sides. No one outside the relationship is deciding what goal should be sought or how it should be reached. There is no single one-size-fits-all goal or standardized procedure for reaching it. Humans come in unique sizes, after all, and have unique goals. And just as their goals are unique, so are their stories. Every person has had her or his own path in life. Pursuing that individual path is every person’s right, assuming that it does not impinge upon the rights of others, and should be supported in whatever unique ways are needed.

The importance of organizational scale cannot be denied, but numbers of individual community members can bring important change as well. If one person in four-hundred in Minneapolis, about 1,000 people, each made time to help one or two people—disadvantaged students, long-term job seekers, struggling shop owners, overwhelmed single parents, and many more who simply do not have access to the resources necessary to pull themselves up into the light—1 person in 400, helping one or two people each—one or two thousand lives could be changed in Minneapolis every year. And if this were the norm across America, millions of lives would be improved through sharing what many of us have more than enough to share, mostly at no material cost to ourselves.

I have time to tutor, and it takes time, but the tutoring is its own reward. And if you think you don’t have enough of anything, think about how much we have that we take for granted. Time? How much non-productive time do you spend in front of a computer? Or in front of a television? Knowledge? How much do you know about starting and running a small business? My wife has met with a few of my former students, many new Americans, to help them get started in their job searches. If you’re a computer user, could you track down places for someone in distress to get help? Research and provide resource lists? Automobile? Could you give rides? Make sure young or old get home safely? Deliver meals? We have so much, there is no reason so many human beings who live within reach have to live in such need.

We can all do more, but even one in four-hundred would mean so much. You can give a few dollars here or there and feel you’ve met some obligation, or you can give a little time, effort or knowledge and know you’ve made a difference.

The Problem with the “Achievement Gap”

Words carry baggage. A gap in a society has a near side and a far side. We put people on one side or the other. “We” are of course on this side and “they” are on the other. So a gap forms groups, absorbing individuals into one group or another. “Gap” and “group” are constructs imposed on reality, not derived from it.

If the separating measure used in creating a gap is achievement, it ignores the fact that achievement occurs on a continuum. So “gap” is a false construct, which not only does not accurately reflect reality, but which must serve some other agenda as well.

When we align the achievement-gapped construct with the long-standing race construct, we simply reinforce the notion of racial difference. In addition to focusing our attention on achievement, one very impersonal aspect of education’s many acculturating functions, it turns our attention away from the broader cultural and institutional aspects of a society that so stubbornly exclude individuals from opportunity and access to full and equitable participation based on superficial characteristics, such as skin color.

The achievement gap is only a glimpse of the vastly larger culture gap from which we suffer, and for which there is no self-elevated committee, council or cause resourceful enough to correct us, it seems. Even the good news is bad: we are not the only ones. Almost every culture on this planet suffers the same twisted, albeit self-serving, perspective on reality. Markers of “group” difference are plentiful—race, religion, ethnicity—all social constructs that have no basis in essential reality.

The problem, as I see it, is that there may be no solution to a “gapped” world. In the absence of the motivation of six billion plus individuals, there may only be resignation or eternal angst. Given how many of the world’s people will read this article, what are the chances?

Meanwhile of course, we can use “achievement gap” as a political tool for funding and policy decisions, the other agenda.

Talking to Myself

In a recent conversation with a doctor friend, a man of considerable intelligence and self-assurance, I found myself repeatedly rambling off topic, following one inciting spark after another. And not just wandering off the initial topic onto another, but cascading from topic to topic. I found myself on several occasions dangling among the twigs and leaves, but had little idea how I had achieved my arboreal dilemma.

Well aware at the time of the communicational problems I was creating for myself, I reflected on what had transpired as I threaded my way home along Lake Street. I seemed to have forgotten how to have an intelligent conversation. I had good ideas, but I had lost my capacity for expressing them at all clearly. No. I had somehow disconnected the ideas, many of which were pithy abstractions, from my skill at discourse, assuming I ever had any of the latter. This was not good. Allegorically—and much of the good thinking has indeed been allegory anyway—it amounted to cognitive constipation. A friendly cup of coffee, had been a harsh brain laxative and had produced an abrupt, barely controlled flow of intellectual crap.

And that wasn’t the only such outpouring of well-founded, poorly produced thought. The week before coffee with my friend, I was in a meeting of which I attend perhaps nine each year of any kind. Concerned with the possibility of our group’s constituents perceiving their privacy violated by an action on the floor, I suggested a strategy for forestalling a negative response. In the face of critical review of my suggestion, I planted my standard and drew sword. Later, realizing that I was neither persuading the opposition of accepting my proposed course of action, nor was I getting them even to grasp my concern, I relented. In that moment of deflating insight, I saw that the constituents would be similarly unlikely, to the committee, to sense any privacy violation. I could see that my fear sprung from a distant possibility, but I had charged ahead.

How had I flown so furiously down that dark path? It wasn’t that my fear was unfounded, but only remote, yet it churned into action a deaf passion, not to be reined in and deal to criticism—a stampede of words. Then days later, I found myself over coffee, again astride a runaway train of thoughts. What was becoming of me? I am of an age where considering early onset dementia is not unreasonable. I don’t seem to have this problem when sitting in my recliner, pontificating to the empty chairs across the room on ideas sparked by what I am reading in Erdrich or Hardy or Raabe. And so there it is. Alone, I am privately coherent. While in conversation, disjointed in context, thought and word, I have been called upon to merge these, unsuccessfully, into public coherence.

When my neighbor asks me what a flower is in my garden, I am occasionally stuck for the name of the thing. I know what it is, when it will bloom and how to treat it. I just never say its name out loud when I do these things. So I have pushed its name-words down, beneath more pressing, and non-lexical, information. I know that I often think in the conceptual without dipping into the symbolic. I see a pattern here, and patterns are big with my understanding of things. In my head, in my reading, in my garden, I am fully functional. I can manage, arrange and cross-connect the material, temporal and abstract realms just fine, but when I apply the word producing rhetorical processes into these, I find my results faltering. I have craft in expressing ideas, observations and understandings into words, given time and an editor’s pen. However, I need to practice this craft so that I can fluidly call upon it. There may be some slowing of the processes, due to aging, that bring these rhetorical skills on line, but the skills are still there. Using them well will require more practice before and more time when I need them.

I must therefore write more, for my brain’s sake. Moreover, I must write about how I can communicate my thoughts more effectively, for everyone else’s sake. I have recently started a list of things I think about. I will add “how I can communicate my thoughts more effectively” to that list. I can use this list to prompt more writing. I hope by this means to refine my rhetorical skills and at the same time, apply them to some of my most abstract thinking. I hope by this to keep my brain working well, longer and to make a conversation with me more coherent and perhaps enjoyable.

To do these things, I must simply get out more. I spend too much time alone.

Investing in Your Retirement Income

How is investing in your retirement income like keeping yourself in food? Well, how do you keep yourself in food now?

Feed-Me #3: I eat at my parents’ until they invite (force) me out to work and live on my own. Okay. Partying, social media, Starbucks platinum level may have to back off in place of serious work, rent and utilities, and eating out—but giving up international cuisine is asking too much. After all, you only live once, right? And this is how it will go until I drop or marry into money, the latter of which is not likely to happen when I pass the retirement age of 70+. By then inflation is likely to have out-paced wages by 100%. Hello, cat food.

I had no pension plan, except Social Security, and years of small government conservative shrank that and Medicare to something less than the poverty level and free clinic visits. No one explained to me that not everyone wins the lottery or winds up in the top 2% of wealth.

Feed-Me #2: I make a plan before moving out to own a house by 35, so save for a down payment while working hard and long—a day job plus a part time. I buy smart and healthy at the co-op and learn the best buys in wine and craft beers. I take a cooking class or two and master some pretty good dishes that impress my friends and partner. Our children don’t appreciate the food, but demand much in clothes, sports activities and tech-toys. Our kids go off to very good schools, which we hope will earn them high paying jobs.

By the time we settle in to paying off the house and college loans, we realize that there has never been a time to contribute the advised 20% of income to an IRA. We will be working past retirement age if we can, but those last 5 years of life, which cost half or more of our total life medical costs may have to be covered by the kids. I may be watching a modest life drain away into a long, sad decline. It all balances out.

Feed-Me #1: I live at home, paying costs to my parents until I have a steady career job. I plan on buying a home as soon as I can arrange it. I live as cheaply as I can manage, valuing people over things, parks over concert halls, Mr. Coffee over Starbucks. I use public transportation, which alone saves enough for a down payment on a house in about five or six years. I buy smart and healthy at the Cub. I have learned what foods have real value and are affordable. As soon as I can, I get a garden plot to supplement the expensive stuff I can grow. Once I get a house, I plant an apple tree in the yard and a big garden in the back. These investments, along with running and biking, help keep me fit as well, and will reduce my medical costs even into very old age. Live starts early and ends late after all.

I was fortunate enough to have a public pension plan which with Social Security took about 15% of my salary, and that was matched by my employer. I have paid off my house, and the kids’ public college loans are handled. Since I also saved in 430(b) and 457 plans almost from day one, I will have enough income for the next 20-25 years to equal about 80% of my final working salary. That means travel, visiting the kids, and even reinvesting against expensive final years.

Just as I planted seeds in my garden, I planted financial seeds in my retirement plans, and because I started early and waited, as I did with the apple tree, I can actually wind up with more than I absolutely need. Just as I understand the growing season, I see the value of treating life as a whole process. I could have just lived on the harvest collected by others; then I would have been feeding the others as well, and that would be expensive and would have no end. I could have joined the harvesting, cutting the wheat I could later eat, and that would have reduced the cost, but because of waiting until late in the process, it would have offered too little a return, and even that return could be threatened by a bad crop. Worse, next season, when I wasn’t working, I would earn no return at all.

Even starting early, planning and exercising some prudence, while it could earn proportional wealth compared to those early years, — even that case offers no guarantee. Climate change, mining operations, social disorder, any number of things can spoil the crops or even poison the land. Social Security and Medicare can still be gutted, pension plans can be subverted, or the world economy can collapse.

There are no guarantees; there are risks. The trick is to minimize the risks, and that is best done by pooling our efforts. Going it on your own, no matter how good you are, leaves you the most vulnerable. There is safety in numbers. It doesn’t matter how confident you are in your abilities, the thing that will get you is beyond your control or anyone else’s. Life is a challenge; rise to it; don’t try to play it. Your public employee pension plan is your best hedge against tragedy. It’s your right. Support it.

The More Things Change…

Dickens’ Spirit of Christmas Present said it 170 years ago: if nothing is done to correct it, discrimination and poverty will remain the doom of humanity:

clip_image002“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Some may blame the poor and oppressed for their condition, and thereby justify punishing them further. Or some may use that condition to their benefit, manipulating politics and economics to further separate the victims of poverty and discrimination from resource and power. In just such a way some blame the schools, the teachers and the unions for the outcome of such conditions in education.

We’ve long known of the persistent and troublesome academic gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers in public schools.

We’ve long understood the primary reason, too: A higher proportion of black and Hispanic children come from poor families. A new analysis of reading and math test score data from across the country confirms just how much socioeconomic conditions matter.

Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.

“Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares,” Motoko Rich, Amanda Cox and Matthew Bloch, New York Times, April 29, 20162

In reality, we have all inherited these poisons to our civilization, and we must all—from the meek and humble to the rich and powerful—join together to rid ourselves from them. We could be the generation of Americans who are truly great enough to face our doom and beat the odds. Yet too often we blame the victims and beat the scapegoats. Meanwhile American’s soul is festering.

_________________________________

1 The online text: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm#link11 <

2 The interactive graphics show systems that were studied. Find yours. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/29/upshot/money-race-and-success-how-your-school-district-compares.html <

Morning News

What makes us who we are is not skyscrapers, not smart phones, not war machines, not cars that drive themselves; it is the scope and depth of our intangibles–Son House, Jackson Pollack, Martha Graham, George Gershwin, Robert Altman. When we count these defining achievements as dead history, when we consign our true American history to the trash heap and value only what is new and material, though doomed to ever shortening life spans, we erase our identity; we become creatures of a moment and then are gone. We become stranded in an endless and undefined present, isolated in time, striving to define who we are. Without a recognized course through a coherent past, we cannot project a trajectory into a meaningful future. We don’t see where we’re going or feel any reason why we should be going there. We are resolved to a kind of hopelessness in which we just wait for the next present moment, the next new thing, the next ‘today’ in which we relive the same, as yet, undefined newness. And the worst is that we have become not what we bring with us to each new day, but the ‘pay-to-play’ response to what we are given by the anonymous cosmic powers. We are following a trail of crumbs that was dropped by we know not whom and which leads we know not where.

In Search of Our Dignity

Almost 11 years ago, an Indian Ocean earthquake produced a devastating tsunami that was responsible for roughly 23,000 deaths and 100 millions displaced. Something like $5 billion was needed to provide assistance; $1.8 billion was pledged in emergency aid; and corruption, bureaucracy and nationalism hampered that humanitarian response on the ground and around the world.

Not long after it was clear that the Middle East had moved from unstable to incendiary. Sectarian conflict had been exacerbated, ethnic rivalries had become sharpened, and economic constraints following war in Iraq and sanctions in Iran raised anger as well as vulnerabilities. Once again tens or even hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed and millions have been displaced. The birthplace of civilization and many of its most important features from ‘0’ to ‘Z’ is being destroyed in in an enormous and ironic gesture of psychotic religiosity. Criminal destruction and sale of antiquities and brutal human trafficking are taking everything from individuals and from the whole of humanity. Ethnic and political conflicts are being exploited in the turmoil surrounding the Syrian/Iraqi free-for-all. Meanwhile, people are robbed and killed by the truckload, babies are drowned and washed ashore, women are given for rape and abuse as religious rewards, and the world largely stands by, slaps a few hands, drops some more bombs, and argues about how it’s a neighbor’s responsibility.

When did we lose our humanity? Humanitarianism is the highest form of human dignity: the belief that we never have too little to share with those in need; a hallmark of humanity. In Guatemala in 1999, a family living in a single room home with little more than the clothes they wore and the tools they worked with offered me, a comparatively rich American, a meal. Theirs was an act of gracious dignity. In France last week, we prided ourselves for awarding medals to three men who jumped to the defense of a train car full of strangers, yet within a week, train cars full of refugees and migrants are being herded like cattle into camps in Eastern Europe. If we recognize dignity, why don’t we recognize indignity?

Perhaps our humanity was never real. Perhaps it was just a carrot, dangling at the end of a stick before our eyes. We are never more than a few steps away from attaining humanity as we trudge along the treadmill of history, reliving one inhumane absurdity after another. We struggle, or think we struggle, to get ahead and prosper, and we confidently accept that destruction, despair and death is the lot of others and must simply be understood to be part of life in this world. These are the words of an egocentric and cowardly fool. There is no guarantee that disaster and strife will not strike any of us. When that happens, will we expect the humanity of others to come to our rescue?

I hasten to add that there have been many, I don’t know how many, who have individually stepped up to provide the help they could in whatever ways they could. It keeps my hope alive. I direct my words at those who have mistaken empowerment for leadership. These are the times when we can distinguish those who are good leaders from those who simply wield power. Those who have stepped up to help I would mark as showing good leadership.

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