Tag Archives: Nicaragua

The Virtue of Virtues

A long-time friend of mine recently bestowed a gift on me, one that has intrigued, perplexed and annoyed all at the same time.  It may seem strange that one small gift could accomplish all of this, but given the nature of the giver, I would expect no less.

George is an octogenarian, and one who has stuffed a great many experiences into his years, whether in vocation, family, service to others or contemplation of self.  For these reasons, as well as the fact that he is simply a very nice man, I enjoy meeting with him every so often for excellent conversation.  Neither one of us will ever be able to recount the winners and losers at The Academy Awards, but both of us like to expound upon what is right and what is wrong with the world today.  We both pretend to have the answers, if not the questions.

The gift he brought to me is no less than a presentation of life’s virtues.  One hundred thoughtful descriptions of moral excellence and goodness of character are printed on 4X5 cards, along with certain actions which embody the particular virtue.  They are a product of The Virtues Project, an international initiative to inspire the practice of virtues in everyday life.  Each day at breakfast, I’m confronted with a new aspect of right action and thinking which may or may not be attributable to myself.  But they’re good triggers for thought and conversation with my wife, as I either claim ownership of a virtue or confess my weakness of it.  (I am too afraid to keep track of whether I have more “hits” than “misses.”)  The object is not keeping score, but reflecting on one’s personal posture.

The experience is stimulating.  I mean, how often do most of us have the questions posed about our daily existence and how we have chosen to live it?  Consider matters of integrity.  Honesty.  Humanity.  Commitment. Honor.  Gratitude.  Faith.  Empathy.  Grace.  Generosity.  Love.  Peacefulness.  Responsibility. Sacrifice.  Tolerance.  Truth.   The list is as long as it is deep.  Serious reflection of virtue is sobering, affirming and complex, all at the same time.

Yet there is a sort of elitist quality about contemplation of such things.  My past week in Nicaragua reminds me that consideration of manners and philosophies often becomes subjugated in light of the daily grind of feeding one’s family or securing the particulars of suitable shelter.   In some cases, circumstances tend to bend absolute virtues, or at least place them in conflict with other virtuous aims.

I do not imply that Nicaraguan peasants are without virtuous living; in fact, the reality is quite the opposite.  My experiences with rural Nica farmers often have been object lessons about living with dignity and hope despite enormously difficult circumstances.  Virtuous behaviors come from within, cultivated from generations of living in concert with their faith, the earth and one another, rather than from a conscious deliberation of what “ought to be.”

What occurs to me in the understanding of living against great odds is that the opportunity for meditation on matters of virtue and how to cultivate such behaviors is almost non-existent.  The conscious deliberation of what “ought to be” is too often a luxury afforded to those who are well off enough to indulge in contemplation of 4X5 cards.

Perhaps the observations are of no note.  Certainly, those who have been blessed with opportunity for musing on such matters have brought about only a modest degree of change and equity in the world: children still starve against the virtues of  Generosity, Humanity, Justice, Mercy and Sacrifice.  In my own reading of the virtues, I long for the recognition of them inherent within myself, regardless of the words on the cards.  But it is not always so, and the gentle reminders of what I could be are blessings to embrace.

There’s still time.  The questions are not complete, the answers not finished, our lives are not done, our legacies are not written and our virtues are not known until the end of our days….



Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

I’m preparing for another visit to Nicaragua next week, the first since last August.  I’m excited to be going again, but the length of time between visits has caused me to forget my usual routines for getting ready and the result is that I’m already feeling like I’m behind.  To further compress things, I was supposed to be headed to Minnesota earlier this week,  but a winter storm and prudence dictated that, after I shoveled out the driveway, I stay “hunkered down” for the next 24 hours.  I’ll need to re-schedule that meeting for the second time!  On top of that, we’re working on some WPF transitions, preparing for the retirement of our office manager, hiring a Nica consultant following another retirement, and interviewing several new Board candidates.  Where’s the time going to come from?

In addition to the immediate travel logistics, there are family matters, as well.  Our twin daughters’ birthday is rapidly approaching and we need to pick a date for celebrating.  Another daughter is participating in a body-building competition and we’ll absolutely be in attendance for it.  We have income taxes to complete and file, a dentist appointment is just ahead, there’s a fix to some flooring that needs to be made, we’ve got to schedule the furnace guy for a mechanical issue, and Katie’s sister is about to move from our house into her own place.  Time’s up!

One of the maxims about growing older is the reality that time seems to speed up.  For many, some of the same old routines take longer, there seem to be more things to accomplish than ever before, and the need for rest each night tends to move up ever so slightly.  The result is a feeling that things are moving faster.  There’s nothing new in any of this: it’s simply the cycle of life as it moves inexorably from start to finish, except for those to whom it is happening, of course.  There just never seems to be enough time and the window of availability just keeps getting smaller every day.

In preparing for my travels, I naturally re-orient myself to Nicaragua as I prepare to adjust from a U.S. lifestyle to a Central American one.  I think about how things will be different next week, from the language to the food to the evening accommodations, from an environment of material excess to one of a perpetual search for basic needs.  And I couldn’t help but reflect on another notable difference: the passage of time.

Our anxieties about time are a product of a society that needs to run with precision.  It doesn’t provide much allowance for delays and its tolerance for being late is thin.  A case in point is my inability to drive 160 miles to the Twin Cities for a long-planned meeting, due to ice and snow.  My luncheon partner was fully understanding and my decision was absolutely the right one to make, but all day long I suffered with guilt and a sense of letting people down.  You may attribute those feelings to an overly-sensitive psyche, but it’s the product of a culture which expects timely completion of plans, no matter what the circumstances.  Snow?  Drive through it.  12-hour days to finish a project?  Just do it, as Nike ads admonish us.

In contrast, my meetings within the rural sectors of Nicaragua next week will not have such expectations.  Sessions to be held with governing bodies of the cooperatives may or may not begin at 2:00 P.M.  as scheduled.  It may take some participants longer to arrive at a central meeting location, as they travel long distances- often by foot-  from their farms in order to attend.  Where available, transportation is unreliable.  The demand of the farm is sometimes a priority that just can’t be denied, even against the obligation to attend a meeting on behalf of the coop.  A weather event might wash away a bridge.  There are not many clocks.  And sometimes it is the North Americans who arrive late, having encountered other delays in the day or on the roads.  2:00 in Nica means, “as close to 2:00 as you can make it.”

Does casualness with regard to time irritate people in Nica the way it most certainly does in the U.S.?  Not in an apparent way.  Rural peasants evince an acceptance of the informality of time that is part of their lives; people subject to systemic indigence learn to cultivate a tolerance to all sorts of inconvenience and oppression. Of course, there are some sectors of society for whom time is a tyrant, but in the rural sectors where our work is accomplished, there is neither luxury nor tyranny of the clock.

In the countryside, matters are attended to as people are able.  The demands of small farm production and subsistence living conspire to direct peasants in their work, not according to the clock, but according to what circumstances allow.  It’s not that time is disrespected, but that it, too, must fall victim to the injustice of poverty.  Poverty is not selective of its prey.

Time.  I’m not sure whether there is greater health in the Nicaraguan’s acceptance of its limitations or in the tight expectations of it in U.S. life.  Maybe the truth is somewhere in between.  What I do know is that having the choice of one circumstance over the other is a far greater advantage than having to tolerate one which is imposed.  Nicaraguans seek a reality that provides the choice.  And it’s about time they have it….








My wife and I were looking at some photos of ourselves the other day, marveling at how young we once looked and subsequently commiserating at how old we appear today.  I stared for some time at one photo in particular, one that seemed to capture the relative innocence and naivete of the young man in question.  I tried to recall his state of mind at the time of the photo, what issues weighed heavily upon him, and the decisions with which he would be confronted in the days and years ahead.  Hindsight is a wonderful perspective to play with; when you already know the result, the journey becomes an interesting study of choices.

Each of us is, after all, the sum total of choices we have been permitted to make throughout our journey of life.  Our choices reflect not only preferences but, more importantly, our values, our principles, our character.  They serve as articulations of who we wish to be and of who we actually are.  And they are the milestones of our journey, marking the signal events of our lives.

Choices are the acts of bringing to life our beliefs.  They are the expressions of our innermost feelings about lifestyles, about the type of vocation to which we aspire.  Choices reflect our most intimate feelings about having a family and what is important in our personal and spiritual lives.  Choices are dynamic portraits of who we are.  I reflected long and lovingly about the choices that the young man in the photograph made over his coming years, with a sense of satisfaction that his decisions had been, for the most part, the right ones for his own unique psyche.

But what if I had not had the luxury of choice?  What might my portrait look like if my life, instead, had been channeled at every turn. if the circumstances of my being were such that I had no choice?

I might never have been introduced to and courted by music.  Maybe I would not have encountered the opportunity to know sports and fitness, the elements of my physical well-being.  Perhaps I would never have known the centering peace of my spirituality.  What if there had been no option for education?  Possibly I’d have served in the military during the Viet Nam war.  What if Katie and I had never met?  Our adopted children would have been raised in different homes; our mutual, familial love for one another would never have come to be.  Maybe our beautiful grandchildren would never have been born.  What if circumstance had dictated that I spend my days in search of food instead of organizational strengthening?  The list of choice-based outcomes is nearly endless.  How might you own life have evolved differently if you had not had the blessing of choice?

The luxury of choice stems, in part, from political philosophies which recognize and value human independence.  It also arises from circumstances that allow the human spirit to envision new aspirations and realities for itself.  In the absence of these elements, choice is minimized.  And outcomes are dramatically different.  It’s true everywhere.  In the U.S.  In Nicaragua.

Winds of Peace Foundation works with many organizations and individuals in Nicaragua who have few choices.  They are moved in directions dictated by their realities and their histories, in the former cases often motivated by need for survival, in the latter cases motivated only by what they know from previous generations.  And when motivation stems from either absolute need or limited knowledge, then choice is often a forgotten, impractical dream.  The nature of the Foundation’s work is to create the environments for more choice, with the certain knowledge that, over time,  greater choice invariably leads to better outcomes.  I wonder what Nicaragua might look like today if their history was populated with greater choice and fewer outside impositions that eliminated it.

In the years ahead, I expect to make lots of choices about things.  Perhaps the Foundation will adopt some new methodologies. Maybe I’ll move into a new vocation altogether.  I might do some more writing.  My wife and I will make some determinations about eventual retirement.  We’ll think about travel that might be important to us.  I’ll even continue to choose the kinds of food I want to eat, whether for my health or for my enjoyment.  But whatever the issue, I’ll have in mind my gratitude for having the opportunity to choose, and a hope to be a resource to those who do not….





We Are Like the Frogs

“Frogs were the first in the evolving animal world to develop a true voice.  Pushing air into their pouches, across vocal cords, frogs produce a variety of sounds, from trills and whistles to grunts and chuckles, depending on the species.  Each species actually sings its own unique tune, which has now become an important mechanism for identification.  All of us have our own songs to sing, in the celebration of life.”                   -Linda Jade Fong

I get to hear the frogs for most of the year.  They live on the river banks of the Upper Iowa River, or in the rain garden on the north end of a campus.  I happen to live in a college town.  It’s a small town and a small private college, but the presence of the school nonetheless enriches the lives of the citizens in the community.  At various times of the year, we have opportunities to hear national speakers on current topics, watch athletic events, attend classes, observe whatever is current in the lives of students, attend plays, or enjoy concerts.  Of course, we don’t have to partake in any of these activities, but it’s certainly a nice benefit to have the choice to do so.  And, of course, we have the frogs.

The college is Luther College.  It also happens to be one of the most beautiful campus settings in the entire country, further adding to its value to the community.  And Luther College boasts (appropriately, I think) one of the most accomplished music programs in the country, as well.  Its 600+ member combination of orchestra and vocal choirs annually stages a musical performance that is, by any measure, exquisitely professional.  The crystalline sounds of the voices from each of the six ensemble choirs is an emotional experience worthy of the distances that audiences often travel in order to be swept away to yet another place altogether.

Of course, development of exquisite sounds requires great determination, practice, exceptional teaching and exhaustive coaching.  Members of the choirs work one-on-one with voice coaches to cultivate and extract the very best from themselves, to discover the ranges and tones and expressions that will wring tears of sheer joy from those who have the good fortune to hear them.  A voice coach can “reach inside” of the student to bring forth the unique character of sound residing within.  The result is nothing short of astonishing.

I have thought about the remarkable role that voice coaches play.  When students first arrive on campus, they are, for the most part, only full of potential.  But raw talent requires forming and nurturing, confidence and a calling, a shaping capable of creating not just beautiful expression, but reflecting an essence of life.  Through voice, we have the privilege to glimpse the soul, and to know its most basic self.  In many ways, that peek into the spirit is a great gift.

By truly hearing the voice of another, we are gifted with the opportunity to respond to it, with our own precision and perfection, to that individual’s deepest need.  We are given the chance to fully hear and know that which could confer a greater well-being, a connection between us, a promise of mutual strength.  There may be few gifts so important or precious as those which meet the deepmost needs of another.

It’s a rare skill, this voice-coaching.  To enable others in the full scope of their expression requires more patience and selflessness than most of us possess.  Encouraging others to venture out beyond the boundaries of comfort and reticence calls for the full valuation of one’s own voice.  Only then can there exist a belief in the intrinsic value of others’ voices and an elevation of their self-esteem, sufficient to enable confidence of articulation.  Voice coaches bring vision to sounds.  We need the tonic of their inspiration.

Among our own varied, daily aspirations, being a voice coach should rank somewhere near the top of our lists.  Coaxing others in the practice of their own voice makes us more equal.  It’s enabling.  Voices together, like those which have been coached in ensemble choirs, are more powerful than solos, and capable of achieving more than any one alone.  Not incidentally, releasing the power of voice is one of the coaching jobs most important to WPF in Nicaragua.

We each deserve the release of our own voice.  It’s a little like those frogs I mentioned above.  It’s the music of life and fulfillment, the integral piece of the sound that is full humanity.    And I am especially energized at the realization that we can be, each of us,  voice coaches to others.  Just listen, sometime, to the frogs….




We Never Even Know We Hold the Key

“So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we hold the key.”                            -The Eagles

As the new year has begun its reign, WPF has been thinking about and planning for some of the activities that will consume our time and attention over the coming months.  Our team in Nica has already designed the next major workshop, a two-day session to analyze the land and its use, through the gathering and understanding of data about that land and its use.  The workshops are digging deeper and challenging conventional thought more than ever before.  For the participants, it’s scary and thrilling.

The team works hard to discern what the rural producers need.  They have become intimate partners with many of the coops, cultivating a deep understanding of the challenges faced there.  In turn, the team does its own analysis to identify the tools that they might bring to workshops and on-site sessions so that the farmers might become better equipped to succeed.  The farmers, in turn, are eager to hear new ideas, maybe even to discover a “magic pill” that can make their production and commercialization efforts substantially improved over the past.  In short, the team is determined to deliver and the “students” are avid learners of methodologies.

But as I consider the ideas and tactics that WPF might provide, or that I personally might be able to share, I’m struck by another factor, one that likely receives too little emphasis in development efforts.  (Maybe I’m wrong.  I’ve only been involved in this field for 12 years, a mere blink of the eye over the history of poverty.)  The notion occurred to me as I read a short meditation the other day, one that rekindled thinking that I have cherished myself for many years.  The quote reads as follows:

“The fragrance of flowers spreads only in the direction of the wind.  But the goodness of a person speaks in all directions.”      -Chanakya

It’s a beautiful thought.  But its meaning runs deeper than just a sweet sentiment.  For herein is the truth of the power of the individual, the potential that each human being has for impact on the world around him/her.  Even in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances, whether climate, political, social or economic in nature, we each have the faculty- an enormous capacity- for impacting everything that surrounds us.  For many, it’s a gift that we are reluctant to acknowledge and trust; it seems so much smaller than a new methodology or technology.  It’s too inherent within us to feel credible.  But like our very core understanding of right and wrong, it’s a reality.

What our partner producers may need is something more than a technique.  It’s a message of personal deliverance, the need to remember each and every day the absolute truth that we impact every person around us, either for good or for ill, intended or not, and those impacts shape the success of our endeavors.  How our influences work is not preordained or fated.  It is by choice.  The cooperative’s success, the relationships between members and even success of a single producer are all outcomes over which the individual has tremendous influence, and in ways that most of us do not comprehend well enough.

Like any organization, the cooperative prospers or fades based upon the character of individual leadership, and every member of a cooperative is a co-leader.  Successful cooperatives need transparency, which in turn requires the stewardship of individuals to share information- good or bad- with fellow members.  Collaborative work thrives on honesty, putting the good of all before the individual good of one’s own circumstances.   That’s a tall order when faced with the daily struggle of trying to simply provide for the basic necessities of family life.  But therein lies the irony of success: sometimes the surest way to one’s own well-being is to look out for the well-being of others first.  Even in our so-called developed nations, we are limited in our own well-being by the level of well-being in others.  If you doubt that, see the condition of the world today.  Neither the have’s nor the have-not’s are as well-off as they could be.

The impoverished people of Nicaragua and elsewhere in the world assuredly deserve support, be it financial or the wealth of true accompaniment.  But that accompaniment is most effective when coupled with the truth of self-direction.  When any of us come to understand our impact, our influence and what we are capable to give, we stand at the threshold of making the greatest single contribution to our work that we could ever make.

I know that it’s one thing for someone to speak of these things and another thing to put them into action.  When it comes to advice , Nicaraguans know that it’s cheap, whatever the source, and usually carries with it some kind of “catch” for which they will pay a price.  As a result, they continue searching with healthy skepticism.

And we never even know we hold the key….



Together Is Better

Long ago and far away, I sat in a January classroom and concluded what was then called January Interim.  The month of January was dedicated to students choosing a topic of study that was likely outside the realm of their major field.  Biologists studied Shakespeare, English majors learned about personal investments, accounting majors looked at the solar system.  (One cold January I even studied a UI, the “language of space,” developed by one of the school’s psychology professors.  Foosh um bru?)  The Interim was an open space in which to explore new ideas while taking a break from the rigors of  a major field of study. The J Term, as it is now often called by many of the schools which offer it, is still very alive and well, though it has morphed significantly.  Instead of reading about far-off spaces, today’s J Term student is just as likely to travel there.

As expansive as that opportunity may be, there’s another level of engagement that has been created at some schools.  More recently, it’s a matter of not just traveling there, but also interacting with local populations and contributing something of significance and lasting value.  Winds of Peace Foundation has been in the middle of facilitating that. The Foundation has partnered with Augsburg University for more than 30 years as it has sought to study, analyze and provide resources for development in rural Nicaragua.  It’s the Augsburg Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE) that has led the Foundation there and served as significant conduit for contacts and entres to the country and the countryside.

What has worked so well is a synergy.  WPF has a acquired an in- depth understanding of Nicaragua’s persistent poverty through its development work; it has not only funded organizations seeking to strengthen themselves through access to capital and education, but also created  a research base of sociological evidence.  Meanwhile, Augsburg has had the benefit of a development “laboratory” at its CGEE site in Nicaragua, a real-life classroom application for students and academics from around the entire country.  What began as a small symbiotic partnership has expanded to something larger and more potentially significant.

What the synergy has created is a real-life boilerworks, wherein learners have the direct contact and impact on people somewhere else in the world.  It’s well past book learning, and even beyond the personal immersion experiences of the old J Terms.  The synergy here is bringing together students who seek to learn and to understand the reach of their abilities, coupled with rural peasants who live day-to-day in deep need of modern resources.  How else would one describe the application of mathematics to measure arboreal CO2 outputs of the actual forest surrounding a peasant farm?  The result is knowledge for the farmers who can now appreciate the precise contribution and importance of their trees, and real-life, vocational application by students who experience the practical effects of a chosen field of study.

It has been a curious mix, this bridging between rural Nicaraguan populations and urban U.S. students.  They would seem, at first glance, to be unlikely collaborators.  They speak different languages.  Their worlds are thousands of miles apart.  Many of the peasant farmers are of an older generation; their student counterparts are millennials or Gen Z members.  Rural Nica education is experience, with perhaps a bit of history thrown in.  Student education is primarily from the books and classrooms of expensive university surroundings.  How different can two group be?

But the “synergy” which holds them together is their universal longing and need to work together, to benefit from each other, to give in return what each has received.  What they have experienced, what the University and WPF has sought to foster, what real life teaches us to be true, is that we need each other.  We’re better together.  We may see the world differently and hold differing views of what that world is trying to tell us, but our differences help us to see it better.  What a lesson!  If you doubt its truth, just observe any group of U.S. young people saying good-bye to their Nica community.

The collaboration between peasant and student is a remarkable coming together of two disparate entities; that’s a lesson in and of itself.   It’s also a mirror of the alliance between Augsburg University and Winds of Peace Foundation: another two disparate entities in collaboration.  And, if I may be so bold, a blueprint for our organizational and political leaders in an expanding fog of mutual marginalization….

Our Mutual Enemy

I’ve taken to re-reading the Charles Dickens classic tale, Our Mutual Friend It’s Dickens’ last work, a long piece of literature that captured my imagination as a young man and for some reason (perhaps the recognition that if I ever intended to re-read it, I’d better get going), I decided to tackle it again.  It’s full of lessons and observations about Victorian (and modern) life, as well as those long and circuitous sentences with which Dickens was so adept.

Dickens’ focus on the great disparities in Victorian London are well-known, such as in his tale,  A Christmas Carol.  But I ran across a passage in the current book that I simply couldn’t pass up for sharing.  One doesn’t really need to know the context of the story or the characters to understand the clarity of the message.  It reads like this:

In the meantime, a stray personage of meek demeanour, who had wandered to the hearthrug and got among the heads of tribes assembled there in conference with Mr. Podsnap, eliminated Mr. Podsnap’s flush and flourish by a highly unpolite remark; no less than a reference to the circumstance that some half-dozen people had lately died in the streets, of starvation.  It was clearly ill-timed after dinner.It was not adapted to the cheek of the young person.  It was not in good taste.

“I do not believe it,” said Mr. Podsnap, putting it behind him.

The meek man was afraid we must take it as proved, because there were the Inquests and the Registrar’s returns.

“Then it was their own fault,” said Mr. Podsnap.

The man of meek demeanour intimated that truly it would seem from the facts, as if starvation had been forced upon the culprits in question- as if, in their wretched manner, they had made their weak protests against it-  as if they would have taken the liberty of staving it off if they could-  as if they would rather not have been starved upon the whole, if perfectly agreeable to all parties.

“There is not,” said Mr. Podsnap, flushing angrily, “there is not a country in the world, sir, where so noble a provision is made for the poor as in this country.”

The meek man was quite willing to concede that, but perhaps it rendered the matter even worse, as showing that there must be something appallingly wrong somewhere.

“Where?” said Mr. Podsnap.

The meek man hinted Wouldn’t it be well to try, very seriously, to find out where?

“Ah!” said Mr. Podsnap.  “Easy to say somewhere; not so easy to say where.  But I see what you are driving at.   I knew it from the first.  Centralization.  No.  Never with my consent.  Not English.”

An approving murmur arose from the heads of the tribes; as saying, “There you have him!  Hold him!”

He was not aware (the meek man submitted of himself) that he was driving at any ization.  He had no favorite ization that he knew of.  But he certainly was more staggered by these terrible occurrences than he was by names of howsoever so many syllables.  Might he ask, was dying of destitution and neglect necessarily English?

You know what the population of London is, I suppose?” said Mr. Podsnap.

The meek young man supposed he did, but supposed that had absolutely nothing to do with it, if its laws were well-administered.

And you know, at least I hope you know,” said Mr. Podsnap with severity, “that Providence has declared that you shall have the poor always with you?”

The meek man also hoped he knew that.

“I am glad to hear it,” said Mr. Podsnap with a portentous air.  “I am glad to hear it.It will render you cautious how you fly in the face of Providence.”

In reference to that absurd and irreverent conventional phrase, the meek man said, for which Mr. Podsnap was not responsible, he the meek man had no fear of doing anything so impossible; but-

But Mr. Podsnap felt that the time had come for flushing and flourishing this meek man down for good.  So he said:

“I must decline to pursue this painful discussion.  It is not pleasant to my feelings; it is repugnant to my feelings.  I have said that I do not admit these things.  I have also said that if they do occur (not that I admit it), the fault lies with the sufferers themselves.  It is not for ME- Mr. Podsnap pointed ME forcibly, as adding by implication though it may be all very well for YOU- “it is not for me to impugn the workings of Providence.  I know better than that, I trust, and I have mentioned what the intentions of Providence are.  Besides,” said Mr. Podsnap, flushing high up among his hair brushes, with a strong consciousness of personal affront, “the subject is a very disagreeable one.  I will go so far as to say it is an odious one.  It is not one to be introduced among our wives and young persons, and I-“

He finished with that flourish of his arm which added more expressively than any words: ” And I remove it from the face of the earth.”

It is an easy thing to simply banish disagreeable realities with a sweep of the arm.  Or to claim that something is true when it is not.  But doing so does not change the realities or absolve us from the human stewardship that we owe to one another as fellow-travelers on this earthly journey.  Dickens knew it.  And as unpleasant, repugnant, disagreeable and odious as it may be, so do we all….


Olympic Mistrials

Here they come again.  It’s those television advertisements hyping the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea.  I’m a minor fan of both the winter and summer games, but not so much a fan of the nationalistic lead-up to the competition.  Sure, I like to see the U.S. win medals and realize dreams in competition.  but not so much the “heroism” storylines that accompany our introduction to the athletes, nor the presumption of U.S. preeminence.

One of these over-the-top promotional pieces features some of the USA athletes reciting words to “America, the Beautiful,” intoning deeply serious recitations against a backdrop of dramatic, athletic scenes.  The combination of somber voice, a stirring verse of “America, the Beautiful” and scenes of personal sport triumph are designed to capture us and convey an sense of ultimate importance for the upcoming games.  I know what they’re after, but for me it accomplishes the opposite.

“O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,”

I suppose that sports excellence has always conveyed a heroism upon the performer; we hold our athletes in the highest esteem, even when they exhibit behaviors which would be unacceptable when demonstrated by anyone else.  But sports competition is hardly strife.

Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!

The idea of Olympic athletes competing more from loving country than self would be a difficult notion for me to accept, given the fame, the surroundings, the money and accolades conferred upon them.  Indeed, I would be very surprised to learn that an Olympic athlete had grudgingly taken up a sport and sacrificed  a career in medicine or law or social work essentially for the good of his/her country.  And I certainly can’t equate commitment to an Olympic sport with showing mercy upon others or giving up one’s life.

America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!”

The interventions of a divine presence in winning a gold medal will best be left to someone else’s analysis; Olympics aren’t likely the domain of heavenly hosts, and in any case, for every prayer uttered by a U.S. athlete there are potentially 2,872 additional prayers from the other athletes.  (This is the total number of athletes participating in the last Winter Games.)

It matters little whether the U.S. wins the medal count or the National Anthem is played more often than those of others nations.  Success in the Olympics does not define a nation or a people, their character or their compassion.  The Olympics is not a surrogate for battlefields of conquest or measures of character.  But what we can watch closely is the capacity of human endeavor.

The Olympic Games, like their summer counterpart, have always been about the athletes.  They provide a showcase of human physical and psychological accomplishment, a stage for imagining, and seeing, the limits of human capabilities.  That’s the draw and the drama of Olympic sports.  The attempt to make the competitions something more than they are does a disservice to the notions of sport,  competition and the hope that is kindled during this brief unification of mankind.

Yes, the Olympics will provide a world stage for exciting competitions.  But during those 16 days, there will be far more people in the world who cannot or will not be watching.  For them, real heroes are the ones rescuing injured children following a bomb strike or hurricane.  The strife being fought by these competitors is not against a clock, but against oppression or disaster or disease.  These are the ones about whom it may truly be said that they put mercy and compassion ahead of their own lives, that the future of their people holds greater importance than themselves.  Many of these will neither note nor care about the Olympics and the stories behind the athletes there.  For them, there exists an even greater Herculean effort at hand, and one of far greater importance: giving of themselves to others.

So I will watch portions of the XXIII Winter Olympic Games next month.  I’ll vicariously enjoy the breathtaking accomplishments of well-conditioned athletes in their prime.  I’ll cheer for individuals and teams I like- for whatever the reason- and enjoy the hopefulness in seeing even a North Korean team present.  But I’m not likely to mistake either the importance or the heroism embodied by the event.  For that, I’ll look for the anonymous servants who tend to the also-rans….