Category Archives: Life in the U.S.

A Tale of Two Countries

I was just thinking….

The reality is that there is a singular head of the country who has caused some very deep divides among the population.  He is known for saying  controversial things about his opponents and his own achievements.   He governs in a very hands-on fashion, a style which many call autocratic.  That style is accentuated by the fact that he has family members serving within his administration, affirming decisions and positions which are not always popular.  It’s not helped by the fact that he is wealthy and that there are so many within the country who are in serious need.

The government has seemed to be consumed by controlling the press, one of the foundations of a strong democratic government. It has repeatedly discounted any news story that is critical of policy or the president himself.  As a result, the president only speaks with media which represents his positions favorably.  For example, even long after the election results of last year, the administration continues to challenge how many voted.

Even in this age of unprecedented political divide, where polarization is the norm, the administration has adopted an extraordinary agenda of intense marginalization of those who do not support the party in power.  It might mean losing one’s job.  Loyalty is prized above all other traits, even at the expense of truth and integrity.  Within the administration, officials follow only the party line as the singular means to the truth, even to the demonization of those who disagree.

A continuing puzzle is the apparent friendliness of the government toward Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin.  Unlike a vast majority of nations of the Western Hemisphere, this government has been silent in criticisms of Russia and consistently praising of Putin as a great leader.  Perhaps there is some expectation of return favors in the future, but the government raises suspicions by its unusual posture and kid-glove handling of Russia.   Are we, in fact, independent of “the bear?”

This is one of only three nations to decline participation in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.  Whether that effort is sufficient to have a significant impact upon climate change, the country’s unwillingness to participate in the agreement along with 195 other countries creates a signal of dissonance with the rest of the global community.  There is a great deal of disappointment within the country over the unwillingness of government to work with the other nations of the planet in addressing the global warming threat.

So are my musings about Nicaragua, with some interesting comparisons to the U.S., or vice versa?  The reality of both countries is that there is great distress as a result of increasing polarity and fewer opportunities for full participation in  society.

Maybe we’re more alike than we think….

 

 

 

 

Not Invented Here

Can I vent here?  I think management protocol says that leaders shouldn’t use venues such as blog sites or other organizational media outlets to vent their personal irritations.  I understand that.  But in this case, my personal irritation has to do with a Winds of Peace initiative, so maybe it’s OK.  I guess I’ve already begun to rant, so bear with my frustration.

As in past years, the Foundation is supporting the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, to be held in Minneapolis on September 13-16.  This year will be a little different for us, as WPF is contributing not only financially to the Forum, but is also leading one of the “high-level dialogues” being offered on the first day.  The Foundation is bringing six cooperative members to the Forum from their homes in Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Panama and Guatemala.  They will join an important discussion about the role of cooperatives in helping to establish and maintain peace in post-conflict societies.  We’re excited about the topic!

In addition to the panelists, the Forum is interested in inviting other key players in the cooperative chain of commerce- buyers, fair trade certifiers, organic certifiers, retailers and funders- to join in the discussion.  The purpose is to identify where we might collectively contribute to the success of the small, rural producers and the coops to which they belong.  In too many instances, initiatives aimed at helping the small family farmers have become coopted by other objectives and a host of “middlemen” out to game the system.

To that end, we have identified key organizations which have  significant impacts, and which seek to strengthen these small farmers as a major objective.  Indeed, many are important friends of the farmers.  To make an invitation for their attendance at the Forum, WPF agreed to send out a “pre-invitation” letter to  the key players identified, as a way of introducing the idea of this collaborative effort and offering a “heads-up” for the forthcoming, more formal invitation from the Forum itself.  In most cases, we already had identified a name or two from the organization, but in some instances we had to research a bit and make an educated guess as to an appropriate individual.  (My hands are starting to quiver; I think this is where I begin to feel frustration.)

All that I seek is a name and an e-mail address.  I have nothing to sell, no political agenda to push, nothing subversive to drop in anyone’s lap.  I simply have an invitation to offer, for something that is essentially at the heart of what these organizations are professing to do: help the little guys.  But the road to contact in some of these well-known and widely-praised organizations is as impassable and impossible as some of the roads in the Nicaragua outback.

First, there is the receptionist.  The receptionist wants to know why I wish to speak with Ms. X.  I explain the somewhat lengthy story about the Forum and the invitation.  This is met with the explanation that Ms. X AND her assistant are out for the day, and that I should try again tomorrow.  (I wonder if she might have told me that in the first place.)  When I call the next day, I reach a different receptionist, and she, too, wants to know in great detail why I wish to speak with Ms. X.  After reciting the details all over again, she passes me through to the administrative assistant.

Unfortunately, the assistant is not at her desk, and I am invited to leave a voice message.  As much as I don’t wish to do this, I am reluctant to waste this opportunity to connect, for which I have now worked so long.   So I share the story once more to voicemail, and respectfully ask for a return call so that I might elaborate or answer any questions.  I leave my phone number twice, just to be sure that I can be reached.  But, as you might have guessed, there has been no call.  Eleven days later, I have had no response.

I’m frustrated.  So I turn my sights to another large, well-known entity within the development world, one that is known globally as a generous and active funder for the impoverished.  Recognizing the absolute rightness of their cause, I have cause to hope for success.  My first stop is the ubiquitous receptionist, who wishes to know if Mr. Y is expecting my call.  I can’t imagine how he could be, since we have never spoken before, so the receptionist determines that I really need to speak first with Y’s administrative assistant.  (I prayed that it not be the same one as the previous day.  Is it possible that  large development organizations share administrative assistants?  Or do they just all come from the same schools?)  When I reach this guardian of Mr. Y’s time, she, too, wants to know if full detail the nature of my desire to talk with Y.  And after my lengthy-but-alluring description of the Forum and my case for eagerly desiring her firm’s possible participation, she informs me that Y is not available.  She will be pleased to pass along my name and number.  I could hear the deflation from the balloon I had so carefully blown up.  In ten days’ time, I have received no return call, from either Y or his assistant.

I am not organizationally naive. I filled a CEO role in a manufacturing company for 16 years, so I know the demands on an executive’s time and energy.  I know the competing forces that pull on busy people each and every day.  I also know two other truths: first, courtesy is not passe´ and a return call from someone is always appropriate.  (Isn’t that one of the roles of the administrative assistant?  Or has that become too plebian these days?)  Second, important opportunities and initiatives are not always going to be the province of big organizations with large fundraising budgets and lots of administrative staff.  Sometimes, opportunity comes calling in unsuspecting ways and when we shut ourselves off from other voices, we shortchange the very populations we seek to serve.  Indeed, the behavior contributes to the relative lack of impact we have on global poverty elimination.  There is lots of money, plenty of ideas, and too little collaboration.

There.  I’m done now and my hands aren’t trembling anymore.  My experience is probably no different than ones you might have encountered.  It’s just that in the name of peace-building and helping the poorest among us, I expect something more.  Despite having been in this field for a dozen years now, I guess I’m still learning something new every day: for some groups, if it wasn’t invented here, it’s not worth knowing….

 

 

Distant Drums

It’s June.  The trees are leafed out, I need to cut my lawn at least once a week and summer seems as though it wants to stay around for a while.  It’s what we in the north have pined for during the past six months.  And all I can think about is Nicaragua.

I haven’t been in Nicaragua since February and likely won’t make another return trip until August.  No farms, no cooperative counsel, no ownership enthusiasm, no face-to-face conversations with people who do not speak English, but who nonetheless speak “my language.”  Memory of earlier trips fade over time and I begin to feel more and more distant from people who are the focus of our work and the hopes of sustainable Nicaragua.  That exemplifies a problem, a big one for all of us.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also creates distance.  Physically, I am no further away from my Nicaraguan colleagues and acquaintances than I was upon my return from there in February.  But the ensuing four months have distanced me, nonetheless.  Obviously, I do not see their faces.  I do not hear their voices or the anxieties  within their words.  They do not shake my hand in the morning or wish me a pleasant night in the evening.  We cannot share meals together.  I am not there to encourage and they may quickly forget lessons shared.  We are… apart.  Despite my heartfelt desire to be a resource and a friend, the time and distance erode the intensity of our relationship.  I’ve experienced the phenomenon before.

In 2000, my wife and I traveled with our four children (our two sets of twins) to the land of their birth, South Korea.  One of the many blessings of that travel was the opportunity to meet with both sets of birth parents.  The reunions were priceless, the time spent with these extended families were filled with emotion and love beyond our possible expectations.  We became family with these South Korean kin; by the time of our departure from their country, we promised each other ongoing love and communication.

For a time, we kept our pledge to one another.  From the U.S., we regularly telephoned long distance with the aid of an interpreter. (E-mail was not yet the readily available tool that it was to become.) From Korea, we received gifts and photos.  Christmas featured gifts in both directions.  The bonds remained vibrant.  But in time, they grew less frequent.  Our kids grew into busy young people already pressed for time and energy.  Birth families likely grew increasingly frustrated with time lags and difficulties in translating letters.  And eventually, not even the bonds of shared parenting and extended family could sustain a continued embrace.

It’s perhaps an obvious reality that time and distance intrude on the most sincere of desires and necessities.  And if they can erode our intentions even with respect to those whom we know and love, we can only speculate about the difficulties in nurturing connections with those we do not know.  I experienced it happening with South Korean family.  I feel it developing with Nicaraguan friends.  We become victims of our isolations.

At a time when our government and some of its population look to isolate our nation- to create greater distance and fewer collaborations to Make America Great Again- we would do well to recognize the realities of distance and time.  They are already formidable enemies of peace and humanity.  They siphon away touch and contact and emotion.  They feed doubt and gossip.  They sew seeds of suspicion.  Our needs are not to withdraw even further from the presence of “the other,” but to draw closer.

At the very least, I’m determined to reach out to two families in South Korea.  And to get back to people whom I know and care about in Nicaragua….

 

 

 

“An Anger I Have Never Felt”

Winds of Peace Foundation has embraced many goals for itself since its beginnings: we have sought to help cultivate economic opportunity for the poor, social justice for women, restoration of rights for Indigenous peoples, strengthened education for children, fostered peace and reconciliation between the marginalized and the empowered, and encouraged an holistic health and well-being for the sick.  The list is ambitious and maybe unrealistic in some people’s views, but that doesn’t render the goals any less important or urgent.  (The rescuers at the buried hotel in the French Alps last month began their efforts with individual hand scoops of snow, which eventually led to saving lives.)

Along the way, the work spawns the entire range of human emotions.  Often we feel frustration at the slow pace of change, both within Nicaragua and in the U.S. and other nations.  There is also joy, such as in knowing that Foundation resources have made it possible for young children to access books for reading.  Irritation is never far away, often associated with someone’s lack of context or understanding, where a good intention paradoxically becomes a hindrance to progress.  There are even occasional moments of anger, as when someone of privilege abuses that posture, at the expense (usually) of the most defenseless in society.  Nicaragua is home to many causes for emotional reaction.

So it was with a sense of another emotion- incredulity- that I read about…  a basketball fan.  I’m not much of a fan myself, usually only paying attention in March as the collegiate teams vie for playoff glories.  But I couldn’t help but notice the results of a recent match-up between the Universities of Iowa and Minnesota.  The teams not only played close, but actually extended the game to two overtime periods, before Minnesota prevailed.  Apparently, the end result was helped significantly by an errant call by a referee late in the game, a fact that left the Iowa faithful unhappy, at best.  But, bad calls are part of the game of basketball.  Referees are human, they can only see so much at a time, there are lots of big bodies pivoting all over the court at high speed.  When the mistakes happen, we shake our heads and move on.   It’s part of what makes the game and sometimes creates basketball lore.  Right?

The day following the game, I read some of the displeasure of the Iowa fans in the news.  And there, among the laments and the grieving, emerged a comment which grabbed and confronted me.  One Iowa fan confided, “This fills me with an anger I have never felt before.”

I needed to first consider what the writer was saying, that never before had he/she ever felt such a rage.  Then I felt many emotions for the writer: pity, that something as comparatively insignificant as a game (one being watched, not played) could command such control over his/her life; joy, that he/she had apparently never had occasion to experience great anger in life; perplexity, for someone whose emotional passion is apparently confined to  entertainment; and, yes, anger, that of all the injustices in our country and the world today,  this was the one to garner his/her deep emotion.

There are many realities that might give rise to anger: the murder of an innocent 2-year old in Chicago comes to mind;  genocide in Syria and Africa; racial injustice in the U.S. and other countries; an average Nicaraguan income of $2 a day.  An accounting of human tragedies around the world provides a surplus of reasons for deep-seated anger.  But a missed call during a basketball game?

Maybe it was overstatement, something “tweeted” in the heat of a disappointing moment.  Maybe the writer was looking for a way to underscore just how unhappy he/she was feeling with poor officiating.  But as I thought about the  declaration, I thought I recognized a brutal truth about it.  For those of us living in the material bounty of a place like the U.S., priorities too often become defined by our craving for comforts.  We reach a point psychologically where we want what we want, and we believe we somehow deserve it, and that’s what is important, enough so to engender a depth of anger “never felt before.”

The entire episode made me, well, uncomfortable.  I pulled from my wall a framed quotation from Kahlil Gibran: “…the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house as a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master.”  Here’s hoping that the comforts of our lives never take over matters that have meaning….

 

 

 

Another Voice

The following is an imagined letter from a rural farmer in Nicaragua to those of us in the developed North.  During this holiday time of year in the North, I have wondered how a peasant producer might regard our practices at Thanksgiving and Christmas, in light of realities of many in the global South to exist on less than $2 a day.  

I bring you warm greetings from Nicaragua!  I say warm greetings not only for saludos! but also because the temperatures here have been very warm, especially for this time of year.  Do you have high temperatures in the North?  We know that climate change is happening everywhere, but it seems like maybe it is worse for our countries in CentroAmerica.  They say that many of you do not think that it is real, but I do not believe that.

Our rainfall was plentiful this year.  In most areas it was satisfactory, but in other regions it was too much and the extra rainfall has hurt our plantings.  We are worried about this because in addition to the wet conditions, we are very concerned about the markets.  We have been discouraged by what we are told the markets will pay.  Also, now the so-called “free market” and the policy of CAFTA (do you know this agreement?) will include farm products with prices that make it impossible for small producers like me to compete.  With or without the rains, I am worried that our harvest cannot be sold at a good price.  I think this CAFTA may be a good thing for you in Estados Unidos, but it has created problems for my family.

Like you, we have just completed an election season!  My son is there in your country.  He is a laborer in North Dakota in the oil fields there.  He tells me that he thinks the election here in Nicaragua has brought a sadness to our people because the candidates did not tell the truth and there was much bitterness.  He said that people there do not know much about our elections, but that they don’t know much about their own, either.  Is it true that half of your people did not vote?  We also have difficulties here.  We are told that 60% of Nicaraguans voted, but most of us don’t believe that number.  President Ortega was really the only candidate. Sometimes he says some outrageous things and many cannot support that.  But our democracy is not as old as yours and we are still trying to become better.   Do you like Mr. Trump?

We are able to see that you have begun your holiday festivals now.  On the television I watched your Giving-thanks day, with all of the food that you have and big roasted birds!  It looks like an enjoyable feast.  I was wondering if all of the food gets eaten by each family.  We have our festivals and celebrations, of course, but the food is not nearly so plentiful as what I have seen in pictures.    For many of us in Nicaragua, it would be hard to imagine so much food at one time!

One thing that I don’t understand is what you have called viernes negro, or “Black Friday,” which really seems to begin on your Giving-thanks day.  If your Giving-thanks day is a time for your family to be together and give thanks, why is that demonstrated by leaving the home to do buying?  Maybe buying more things is one of your ways of being thankful?  This year, I have heard that “Black Friday” happened in some stores here.  We have some U.S. stores here who started to do it.  But for most of us, buying is for satisfying a need that we have.  It looks like in the United States that buying is more of an activity all by itself, and one that you do even when you do not have an actual need.  My son says that it is a psychological need that you have, that you do even more of it when there is a crisis, to make you feel better.  I remember that this was your way of coping with the terrible 9/11 incident.

We are soon to see the first of our festivities before Christmas. In several days we begin “La Purisima” or as my son translates it,  the Immaculate Conception of Virgin Mary.  Many thousands of young people in the country sing as loudly as they can and go from house to house to sing hymns honoring the Virgin Mary.   In small towns like where I live there is an old custom of the Catholic Church organizing a parade. The priest goes around the town with a number of performers imitating people from the Bible and enacting the birth of Jesus Christ. Many people view this parade with great devotion.
Do you still celebrate the birth of Jesus or is your holiday more about buying?  My son tells me that in some places you cannot even celebrate Jesus in public but I do not believe that could be true at Christmas!

I have enjoyed writing to you!  I hope that my letter is not boring or irritating.  I have never been to your country and do not know it too well.  I would like to come there and see Disney World.  Also the Statue of Liberty.  It would be difficult for that to happen, so maybe you will come here to visit.  We do not have as many things as you, but we have beautiful land and our hearts are open to you….

Adios, Su amigo Nicaraguense

 

 

 

 

Four Days in November

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us here in the United States, which means that we have moved into late November and early Winter.  It’s always a transition time, with the reds and golds of Autumn giving way to dormant brown and, eventually, snow white.  Lots of people don’t care for November here in the upper Midwest of the country, but I love it.  It’s another promise of change and of time moving on, hallmarks of getting out of the “comfort zone,”  and that’s a good place for us to be.  But this month has already presented a series of “moments” for me, three significant days in a row, even before the promise of turkey.

The first day of note was the U.S election.  To my knowledge, and certainly in my experience, there has never been a contest as coarse, demeaning, undignified and as utterly devoid of fact as the election of 2016.  Much has been written about the candidates’ behaviors by others (nearly everyone), but from the perspective of one rather ordinary citizen, I characterize the fiasco as an event which oozed disgrace and lack of civility at every turn.  If this is, in fact, democracy in action, then my own sensitivities suggest that we search for an alternative form of government altogether.

Yet the discouragement and even despair that I felt during this election season is ironically what made the second day of my November journey stand out so brightly.  On the  day following the election, I met with both the Managing Director and the Program Director of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum.  We convened to meet one another for the first time, to talk about some of the new aspirations for the Forum and to discuss a potential presentation by Winds of Peace at next year’s assembly.  The conversation was a stimulating and hopeful one.

I mean, how could it NOT have been, when elements of the discourse included the names of past laureates, the efforts being made around the world to convene peaceful resolution of conflict. Yes, members of the Tunisian Quartet, the 2015 recipients of the Peace Prize, would be in attendance.  President Obama has been invited, in addition to his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who is among the faculty at peace and conflict resolution institute in Hawaii.  Congresswoman Gabby Giffords will be in attendance, with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly.  And many others, less celebrated and completely anonymous, will be present over those days to talk about their own initiatives and experiences with peace-building.  Against the glow of enthusiasm and commitment of my hosts, a feeling of hope seemed to lift me a bit straighter in my chair.  I walked back to my car with a little more bounce in my step, I think.

On the third day of this sequence, I was to speak to a University of St. Thomas class about the work being done by the Foundation, and how it mirrors, in many ways, the strategies and attitudes brought into play in my former for-profit organization, Foldcraft Co.  I arrived on campus a little early, so I took advantage of the beautiful morning and walked around for a while, taking in the surroundings and feeling the promise that only a university campus can provide.  Quickly I noticed the scores of banners hung around every sidewalk and building, which read, “All for the common good.”  I was struck by the rightness and optimistic promise of that phrase and truly moved to see its presence everywhere.  It was an advent to the class experience to follow.

The presentation went well ( I was told).  The class participants were engaged and curious and full of outward excitement at ideas of organizational wealth-sharing, broad participation and transparency, collaborative work and rewards, and the practice of capitalism without distinction of class, the sanctity of human worth. The questions penetrated the essence of broad ownership and widespread involvement.  The students were intrigued and enthused.  I was pumped and energized.  Together, we had a good time.  After the class period, several students asked for my business card so that we might talk further about the marriage of business and social responsibility.  On this day, I did not notice a bounce in my step as I walked back to the car; I rather had the sense of floating

Within the span of three days, I experienced the lows and the highs that I know are inevitably a part of our human existence.  The outcome to all of it was simply this: I am reminded that the lows are to be found wherever we choose to see them.  There are enough to bring the entirety of mankind to its knees and complete dysfunction.  But just as assuredly, the highs are at least as numerous, and carry the potential to raise us above the mire of surrender.  It’s a matter of where one’s gaze seeks direction.  With heads down, we see the world as a dark place, indeed, and its paths lead to seemingly endless disappointment and loss.  But there is a great deal more to seen with heads up,  absorbing the brighter prospect, allowing us to see and draw strength from the hope that still does surround us.

All of which leads me to the fourth important day of this month, the one during which we are encouraged to be thankful for every blessing of our lives.  What a great idea, gratitude.  What a terrific posture for looking up, noticing the uplift that surrounds us, for acknowledging and embracing it, and for choosing to be the very engine for change, “all for the common good.”

Wow, Happy Thanksgiving, indeed….

 

 

Redistribution

First, a couple of caveats.  (Though this is never a wise practice in one’s writing.)  I normally try to steer clear of political party or opinion in these posts, because that’s not what Winds of Peace is about and political opinion is like pollution of all sorts: it’s everywhere.  Second, my intention is not to sway anyone’s beliefs when it comes to politics.  If something that I write makes a reader reconsider an opinion that he/she holds, that’s entirely up to them.  But every once in a while, someone from the political ranks says or does something that, in my view, merits response.  That’s what this posting is about.

I read that former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, has called for the deportation of all people of the Muslim faith who profess belief in Sharia law– not engaged in illegal activities, but merely believing in a certain religious philosophy.  It’s the latest in a series of xenophobic ideas to emerge from so-called political “leaders” in this country, but an idea which is both unconstitutional and logistically impossible.  Gingrich, who has often promoted unconventional ideas, has clearly exceeded even the boundaries of his own narrow perspectives.  But his concept of extreme prejudice got me to thinking, “what if?”

Gingrich seems to desire a return of Muslim immigrants to their  countries of origin due to the fear that, based upon their beliefs and the violent actions of some constituents of the faith, they will undermine the security and safety of U.S. society.  For the sake of argument, let’s go along with Mr. Gingrich’s postulate and see where it leads.

First, it might be helpful to know where Mr. Gingrich stands with regard to his own religious faith.  He was raised in a Lutheran home environment, though the denomination never seemed to resonate with him.  Later, in graduate school, he became a Southern Baptist convert and most recently he converted to Roman Catholicism.

In any case, it seems as though he may have unwittingly and retrospectively condemned himself and his entire family to deportation from the U.S.   For the annals of criminal justice are brimming over with convicted murderers of all three of the faiths followed by Newt Gingrich.  In his proposal for Muslim deportation, he has condemned all Muslims based upon the actions of some who have killed or vowed to kill U.S. citizens.  If that suggestion has rationale, then we certainly must be prepared to deport Lutherans, Southern Baptists as Roman Catholics, since like some Muslims, their followers have presented threats to the peace and security of this country.

Perhaps it should also be pointed out that during World War II, the Nazi regime was led by a number of “staunch Christians,” including their maddened leader, Adolph Hitler.  There is no argument about the threat which Adolph Hitler posed to the U.S. during his reign of terror, but I doubt that Mr. Gingrich would opine retrospectively about the propriety of expelling Christians from the U.S.

If we go back in history far enough, he might even consider the external threat posed to the original inhabitants of this land and the deadly, culture-destroying invasion of Europeans here.  They, too, were driven by a divine faith which clashed with established religious practice of our earliest ancestors.  They, too, (or their descendants) perhaps warrant deportation.

Taken to its logical conclusion, Mr. Gingrich seems to have set the table for all people to be sent back to the land of their earliest discernible ancestry.   For many Nicaraguans, that might be Spain.  For many inhabitants of the Americas, it’s Europe.  We all might find ourselves asking one another, “where did your people come from?”  Because under Mr. Gingrich’s logic, we should be sent back.

The constitutional tenets of this country provide for each of us to read and believe whatever we may choose, as long as we do not violate laws or the rights of others.  Mr. Gingrich has put forward an idea that utterly rejects that freedom and thus, the U.S. Constitution itself.

The analogies here might seem stretched.  But no more so than the panicky abdication of legal and moral rights expressed by a man who, until this week, was apparently under consideration for the vice-presidency of the United States.  We are always but one voice removed from another human tragedy….

 

3 In 10

I suppose that one cannot be in any line of work for very long without becoming a student of human behaviors, intentionally or unintentionally.  The stories that I can tell from my years in a for-profit environment reveal the zenith of both corporate heroism as well as personal greed.  (Ask me about those sometime.)  Likewise, my past ten years in the not-for-profit arena contain tales of stirring courage as well as frustratingly open self-aggrandizement.  In whatever venue we travel, the polars of humanity are there.  “The great central human considerations may be found everywhere,” wrote author Joseph Langland.

With that in mind, I read a recent report by a midwestern college that provided a short profile of its first-year students, their capacities and their outlooks on certain matters.  And there in the second line, I read a statistic that both puzzled and discouraged me. The report stated that 71.8% of this group feel that it’s “very important” to help others in difficulty.

I don’t believe that these statistics were presented as either positive or negative traits, but rather a report about how these students look statistically.  Nor can I say that they are typical for the age group or an overall college population.  But I could not prevent myself from a certain degree of amazement that nearly 30% of any diverse group would respond in this way, let alone a group of college students whose education and experiences might be expected to produce reports of greater compassion.  Yes, 71.8% of the respondents signaled a high degree of commitment to those in trouble.  Maybe the real story lies within that metric.  But nearly 3 in 10 did not think that helping others in difficulty was very important at all.

I don’t think that I am naive,  Particularly in an age where every sordid and unkind act is reported in detail over ubiquitous social media outlets, criminality and cruelty seem to be rather common. Yet I was struck by the response of this audience, one which, on the whole, might be considered to be more worldly, more in tune with the interdependence that mankind requires for survival, one which seems to pride itself in its attacks upon injustice, calamity and even boorish behaviors with their techno devices in hand.  This was an audience of men and women with at least one full year of college under their belts, more than enough to have begun the awakening that society craves in its “next gen” leaders.  And 3 in 10 have little apparent concern about helping others in trouble.

Maybe these are the outliers, the slow-to-mature ones who have yet to cross the threshold from narcissistic self-serving to a more selfless giving.  Maybe they see the development of their future careers as so all-consuming as to have tunnel vision to those futures.  Perhaps they didn’t understand the question.  But whatever their excuses, these respondents are cause for worry, both for themselves and those for whom they do not see the need to help.

Our reality is that we depend upon the sensitivity and collegiality of one another now more than ever.  Some may deceive themselves into believing that they have survived and thrived in their lives all by themselves, without the presence of others.  But it’s delusional thinking.  Even without mentors or family members, we are impacted daily by the density of humanity on earth and the speed with which our actions are felt by others.    The statistic above makes me wonder what those 3 in 10 feel about all of the actors in their lives, known and unknown, who helped them attain the chance at a college education.

The survey question didn’t even come close to broaching the issue of our global interdependence.  Without a sense of importance about helping those in difficulty at home, the 3 in 10 can hardly be looked to for global solutions to poverty, human rights violations, foreign wars or maybe even  (could they be this myopic?) climate change.  The most pressing issues of our present and future demand extraordinary abilities to “walk in another’s shoes” and live our lives in the mutually dependent manner that our future requires.  It will take 100%  of our human capacities to survive those most pressing issues.  And that’s a statistic which requires little interpretation….