Friday, December 31, 2004

Tsunami thoughts

The rest and repose of this holiday week have apparently been an illusion, since it was only last night that I caught up with the tsunami heartbreak. Till then, I had caught only the headlines with their horrifying increases in body counts. At first, I tried to measure the impact by analogy to the most horrifying thing I ever witnessed—the 9/11 attacks in which 3,000 people died, some few of whom I knew slightly.

By now, I calculate the tsunami toll at over forty 9/11s. How do we wrap our puny human brains around suffering on that scale? How do we explain it, particularly in the absence of any malevolent intent? Conscious though I am of a God outside myself, I cannot believe that this event is in any way is the result of his intent to harm or punish his creation. How do I explain it? How do I rationalize it? I don’t. That’s not my job.

What is my job is to figure out how to respond. Obviously, I send money. Obviously, I think and pray and talk and write about what this means and what the world community needs to do in the future. Right now I have not yet finished with shock and grief.

When the time is ripe, we all do more. I suspect it will have something to do with how we allocate the wealth here on our little planetary garden.

People will differ about how to make those decisions. Emotions will run high. I live and work every day in a world divided by resource allocation decisions. I run a small non-profit, and every day we make decisions either strategically or tactically, either explicitly or implicitly, but we hope always thoughtfully about how to allocate resources. When I put money into a project, that is clearly a choice, but it is also a resource allocation decision when I spend time with one client and defer another. If I overinvest in one project, by definition I am depriving competing demands for those resources. If I stop investing in an existing project, who is to say whether it might not be my decision that is the last shove over a tipping point. In a sense, all our investments are only as good as the marginal one that pushes a project to success or its demise.

If this sounds like something out of a business school course, it is. I learned as much or more in business school as I did studying world literature at the graduate level, and the lessons are as important in my spiritual life as they are in my profession. The point is that good people starting from good premises don’t come to the same conclusions. In my simple world, this is described as the battle between the republicans and the communists.

Try not to think of these as capital-R republicans and capital-C communists. Instead, think of competing forces in how resources get allocated. When I took my job, one board member took me aside—though he swears he does not remember this conversation—and gave me some discreet advice. “Karen,” he said, “You will deal with a lot of different people in this job, and I just want you to be careful not to spend too much time with the communists.”

This advice has been extremely helpful to me. It reminds me that historically my little non-profit had swung wide in the direction of instituting policies that aim to set up overarching systems that do good for people, financing them by redistributing resources from the more wealthy to those in greater need. My board member was expressing a different view that says people cannot and should not control other people without their consent and that some systems run amuck and siphon off resources to support a condescending and inefficient bureaucracy. Or more accurately, my board member was expressing the need to swing back the other direction in some degree. Similarly, it is one function of government to moderate human tendencies in one direction or the other, as it is the function of the brain to moderate between the demands of the stomach and the heart.

Here in Vermont, we heard some of the same conflicts when the last election ended. It wasn’t so much the refusal of the rest of the country to embrace Howard Dean. Rather, it was the shock at being one of so very few completely blue states. Many Vermonters were completely undone at the idea that other views could be so very deeply and inexplicably different from their own. “What world can they be living in?” was the question I heard again and again, both from liberal left and practical right-thinkers.

And there, my friends, is the crux of the matter. In any given situation, we may choose the care-taking option or defense of freedom. In any given situation, care-taking may bleed over into condescension or stifling bureaucracy. In any given situation, defense of freedom can morph into flint-hearted disregard of my neighbor. It all depends on perspective. It depends on how big the resource pie we have to divide among the multitude. It depends on the skills and the hearts of those who are doing the dividing. It depends mightily on the process in which we collectively engage to divide up the pie. As a second order effect, it also depends on how much of the pie we are willing to chew up in dividing up the pie.

My wish for the new year is that die-hard republicans take a moment to explore the many circumstances in which we do support common good and think about whether our approach needs to expand or at least to be realigned. My wish for the new year is that die-hard liberals (little-c communists) take a moment to think about how our desires to fix the world are aided by budgets and selective neglect of some demands on our time, money and other resources. My wish for the new year is that we each expand our comfortable and constrained worldviews and try to see our counterparts not as monsters but as decent human beings trying to do the right thing even as we battle our lesser instincts in our own hearts and minds.

Perhaps the first step is to decide where we draw the magic circle of who is to be loved, supported and nourished. For me, that circle takes in all humankind.

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