Tag Archives: Paradoxes

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….

 

 

The Problems with Privilege

One of my daughters, Molly,  has been working with a local university in co-teaching a section on the concept of privilege.  She’s very excited about the opportunity and the subject matter; in turn, I’m very excited to hear about the class sessions and how people respond to the comforts or discomforts of privilege.  It’s a section of social work students, so my presumption is that they have some awareness of the societal realities regarding privilege.  It’s a topic that touches every one of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Molly commented on the awkwardness exhibited by most of the class members in discussing the notion of their own privilege; it is a group of predominantly white, middle-class students.  Maybe they were feeling a bit of “privilege guilt” or, contrary to my assumptions, perhaps they had never really thought about privilege in their own context.  Whatever the cause, the members of the class struggled in that first session, heads down, voices silent, struggling with whatever notions occupied their hearts and minds.  (Molly related that subsequent sessions became more open, less constrained.)

But the episode spawned interesting conversation between Molly and me, in part because Molly is an ethnic minority herself, an adoptee from Korea at infancy.  She can personally relate to the idea of privilege, both from the standpoint of a minority who has grown up in a white-privilege society, as well as from the point of view of someone who was raised in a family of relative economic and opportunity privilege. The dialogue prompted some musing on my part, as I contemplated the problems inherent in discussing such a charged topic as privilege.

The first of these problems is that privilege is something that everyone inherently wants.  We may not refer to it in terms of privilege, but it’s that competitive or better position that all of us seek, and in nearly all avenues of life.  We want to be “first in line.”  It might be first in line for a new technology.  We line up through the night to obtain front row tickets.  We follow our sports teams in hopes of being able to claim, “We’re number one!” even though the game is played by others.  We push ourselves at work so that we might advance in title and pay.  We wonder longingly what it might be like to have great material wealth or not to be required to work.  Sometimes we even compete to be among the first to escape the church parking lot on Sundays.  It’s in us instinctively.   Whether it’s called getting ahead or realizing one’s full potential or seeking favor in the way our communities look at us, privilege is seen as an advantage, or an honor, or a placement somehow better than before, better than where others are.  We might equate the term privilege with those who are of the economic upper 1%, but it’s an objective we all strive to achieve.

The second problem is that, whether we believe it or not, nearly every one of us already enjoys some degree of privilege in our lives.  Everything is relative in life, and if we could chart the degree of privilege of every human being on a continuum, the only person without privilege would be the individual at the very bottom.  For all the rest of us, we occupy some position that is further ahead or better off than those below us.  We need to recognize that just as we gaze jealously or longingly at someone who we regard as being “ahead” of us, there is someone doing the same thing from below.  All of us are more privileged than some.  Some are more privileged than most.  Most are more privileged than the least.  I even have met some of the least who regard their lot in life as more privileged than the most.  So the cycle depends entirely upon one’s point of view and the meaning of “privilege.”

Third of these problems is that, despite our privilege in life, very few of us recognize that we have it.  We seem to feel as though everyone else has it.  No matter what the blessings or good fortunes of our lives,  we are fixated on those who seemingly have so much more, believing that it’s these fortunate few who are the privileged.  The recognition of privilege is as difficult as knowing our own incompleteness: we can only see it in others.   There are good and valid reasons for us to dream about privilege; such dreams often fan the flames of knowledge and invention.  But privilege has visited most of us, even when we never recognized its random faces.

Finally, privilege has never embraced notions of fairness or justice. When disparities exist among people, discussion of them is usually laced with guilt or blame or other tension to drive a wedge between those who have and those who have less.  The fact that privilege is so unevenly divided within our society has been  cause for debate throughout our history.  It continues to be, and the arbiter of privilege falls to whatever political perspective happens to own government.  That’s ironically the privileged class, and so the cycle continues its lopsided turn.

If the problems of privilege are understood and acknowledged, then a meaningful dialogue can happen for people wanting to know their own places in the equation.  It’s a searing examination of self and other that requires enormous self-honesty and deep compassion.  But the undertaking is a sort of privilege unto itself….

 

The Patient Is Ill

As one who has tended to be drawn to the Fair Trade (FT) label on a wide range of products, I have always been pleased that some of our cooperative partners in Nicaragua are part of that movement. Their participation has simply felt right, and just, as they have sought to connect with a consumer base around the world which has been eager to support the small producer effort. It has seemed a “win-win” circumstance about which both the end user and the producer could feel good. But there is a growing cause for doubt about both the fairness and the trade in FT, and reasons for all of us to take a closer look at the evolution this once- (and future?) empowering concept.

In a very well-researched and analytical article authored by researcher(and consultant to WPF) Dr. Rene Mendoza, he has undertaken a close look at cooperatives in Nicaragua and other  Latin American countries , to assess the effectiveness of the FT movement.  After studying the symptoms and complaints of the cooperative “patients,” he has also offered a detailed diagnosis of the ailments, including contextual  analysis of the pathology which is draining the energies from cooperatives and their members.  His conclusions should provide all parties interested in the FT ideals with both understanding of the disease and hope for its cures.

Dr. Mendoza attributes no blame for the spread of the unhealthiness, but does identify the complicity shared by all of the actors within the FT chain, from producer to consumer.  He identifies both the malady and its contagion points and has created a clinical treatise on where it leads if the disorder isn’t treated.

The best news is that Dr. Mendoza’s article includes several prescriptions for healing and recovery.  He does not offer a magic pill for immediate wellness.  And restoration of confidence  in a system that initially hoped to marry producers with well-intentioned consumers, in a win-win undertaking, will require serious treatment. Like any well-considered rehabilitation, the restoration to full health is likely to be slow and demanding.  It will require patience, discipline, a collaborative mindset and re-focus on values.  But full remission is possible.

For anyone who has ever purchased a product under the FT label, or sought to be supportive of small farmers in a small way by purchasing their goods, I encourage the reading of Dr. Mendoza’s work.  WPF has provided a link to this groundbreaking research on our website homepage, under the column with Dr. Mendoza’s photograph, and entitled, “Toward the Reinvention of Fair Trade.”

Read it.  It may change your thinking about that next cup of coffee, or that recent chocolate bar and the truth about how it may have reached your home….

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….

 

 

The Paradox of Power

Winds of Peace Foundation has been busy preparing for its role in the upcoming “Certificate Program II” in Nicaragua.  The seminar and workshop is the second in what is a series of week-long gatherings of small producers, market representatives, technicians, lenders and related others.  The first of these, held last year in April, was judged by participants to have been useful and hope-producing to their circumstances and outlooks for the future; there is high anticipation for this next iteration, by both participants and presenters.  And among the topics to be addressed, in several ways, is that of power.

If you look at the workshop brochure, you won’t see “power” listed as a subject.  There will be no power expert in attendance, nor will there be any exercises to help participants in body building or intimidation strategies.  Instead, the subject matter will focus on a seemingly unlikely concept, that of sharing.

The irony and paradox of great power is that it is most magnified when it is shared, because no one of us can ever be as powerful as all of us.  So our sessions will focus on concepts such as open book management, where all of the members of an organization are educated about the metrics of organizational success, and how each individual contributes to that success.  We will examine the workings of a “Lean” organization, where all members are provided with the tools and motivations for continuous improvement, where the ideas and innovations of the leaders are seen to carry no greater weight than any other member.  We will have the rare opportunity to jointly visit some member farms, to both witness good practices and offer insights for improvements- an activity that is too infrequent for rural producers who need every advantage and insight possible.  The sessions will also be designed for the maximum degree of shared storytelling, participants teaching and learning from one another.  In short, sharing will be the core of the entire program.

Power.  It’s a useful thing when shared for the symmetrical strengthening of all members of a group.  It’s a divisive thing when it is accompanied by a lust for absolute and private control.  It’s a seductive thing, capable of clouding even the clearest intentions for equity and fairness.  But it’s also a freeing thing, capable of lifting capacity and talent to their fullest heights.

One of the great ironies of humanity is that we tend to believe that amassing and holding power to ourselves is the surest means of success, when in truth our collective and personal well-being- whether intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, occupational or physical- hinges upon the extent to which we share our gifts, knowledge and power.  To share power is to gain it, a paradox much like that of love itself: to receive it, we must be willing to give it.

Individuals and organizations alike have been slow to understand and embrace the reality of holding onto power.  It’s so counterintuitive that it tends to make doubters of most of us.  And then there are the nations of the world, who steadfastly model the wielding of power to the exclusion of other lands.  Organizations like companies and cooperatives, who often look to military and government models of structure and administration, end up chasing a tail that can never successfully be caught.  It turns out that we would often rather be wrong like everyone else rather than right by ourselves.

In September’s Nica gathering, we’ll spend a lot of time sharing wisdom about organizational power and leadership with one another.   And that’s appropriate, because they’re meant to be shared….

Except For…

We’re finally into flat-out, full-bore, blossom-laden Spring in my part of the world!  We haven’t had any freezing temperatures for weeks now, the sun is high enough to quickly warm even the coolest mornings and every living thing is in motion.  I took a long run along the river over the weekend, just to listen and smell and hear the magnificence of Spring in northeastern Iowa.

The water is flowing freely right now, the beneficiary of snow melt and early rains.  The water is clear at the moment- no chemicals in the mix as yet-and not yet affected by the farm field runoff which still carries too much valuable soil and nutrient to the south.  The bubbling rapids are pristine and there is joy in the sight and sound of them; clean water is not only an essential, but a wonder for which to be grateful.  I am delighted by its language, except for the realization that its abundance is shrinking everywhere in the world.

Already, fields have been plowed and crops are being planted for a hoped-for bounty by Fall.  All around the area, the smell of lilac and pine are at their intoxicating peaks, crabapple and black locust permeate entire neighborhoods.  The essence is nearly transformative, lifting me on my run.  I am saturated with gratitude at the sweet scents of the earth, except for my memory of the smells of urban decay, both in the U.S. and abroad, which can quickly overpower the natural beauty of a Spring day.

I encountered five other runners and walkers on this day, each showing elation at the emergence from hibernation with smiles and greetings.  We are all in moments of leisure, blessed in a communion with the beauty of a Spring idyll.  I am glad, not only for myself, but for the experiences of my fellows, except for a sadness that so many others may never know this kind of moment.  Maybe their days will be filled with other joys, but I selfishly want them to feel this moment the way that I do.

I am amazed at my running.  For fifty years I have traversed wilderness and  street, winter freeze and summer swelters, from the Superior Trail to Budapest, Managua to Kyongju.  I have run for my own good, for a sense of accomplishment, to be healthy, and to spark creativity.  I’ve been blessed with good knees and strength, and I recognize every day what such activities have meant to my well-being.  And I find myself full of joy, except for the nagging realization that elsewhere, people conserve their energies for more practical tasks, such as survival.  The thought most often slows me down, even if my step remains light.  Wherever the journey leads, the contrasts are the same.

“Whether you are writing about anger, love, jealousy, desire, hate, it does not make a great difference whether you use a plowed field or a city alley, a garbage can or a rural dump, a city park or Quabbin Watershed Wilderness Area.  The great central human considerations may be found everywhere.”                                                                             -Joseph Langland, Poet

So I run on, in a delicate balance between the sublime and the disquiet, knowing that what I hear is not always heard, what I feel is not always felt, and the others I see are but a fortunate few of the many unseen.  Wherever I am, I run between the conflict of beauty and decay, health and hurt, confidence and despair, for we are whole except for where we hurt, helpless except for when we choose otherwise….

 

 

 

 

 

It’s All About You

We are bombarded with advertisements all the time, whether on television, radio, Internet or printed materials.  There’s nothing new about this at all, though the ingenuity used to invade our consciousness is sometimes surprising.  (I still maintain that the ads over urinals in public restrooms is arguably the most captive approach.)  But I’ve encountered a number of messages lately with the same refrain:  “It’s All About You.”  There’s the recurrent ad on the radio for a local bank which uses that line in its musical imprinting.  (As if banks these days are even conceivably “all about” their customers.)  One of my favorite retailers has begun to use the phrase in its website ads.  (In reality, it’s more about my purchases than about me, I’m quite sure.)  And it’s a message that makes me uneasy.

I understand the implication:  I’m worthy of the product being offered and the benefits that it will provide.  I must have worked hard in life and am entitled to the luxury-pleasure-convenience-status of the item being offered as a visible affirmation of my worth, one that others will see with admiration and maybe even jealousy, because they, too, are worth it.

It’s an easy trap for us consumers to fall into.  The latest versions of luxurious living and tempting toys are alluring, indeed.  Caribbean cruises on floating hotels and cars that drive and park themselves are nearly beyond imagination.  Even in the far reaches of Nicaragua, cell phone accessibility has become an increasingly commonplace wonder.  If some of the chronically poor peasants enjoy such technology, surely the rest of us are entitled to that and more; we must be entitled.

But the promise of “all about you” and the attendant requirement for acquiring more items in our lives is a misnomer for fulfillment, whatever our socioeconomic status.  Not only because shiny things become dulled in time, but also because they- and we- are all so temporary.  We don’t get to take any of our toys with us when we depart the planet, and they will come to the temporary ownership of someone else.  The cycle will continue indefinitely and we will have been owners for only a second in time, nothing more.  We are only stewards of things, whether they be greater or fewer than others, but they are never truly a part of us.

 

In reality, it’s not all about me.  It’s hardly about me or any of us at all. (I was even reminded of that recently in church, sometimes not a bad place for new perspectives.  See the message from January 25.)   Each of us is but one seven billionth of the planet; a mere one one hundred and eight billionth of human history.  Clearly, it cannot be about you or me; we are not that unique.  So it must be about something else, a perspective that makes the center of attention somewhere other than ourselves.  If not me, if not you, then our focus must be on “the others,” the marginalized among us who need and deserve our consideration.

Yet the more I consider the notion, an unexpected reversal of thinking occurs to me.  Maybe it is all about me.  Not in the sense of the receiving and entitlement, but in the giving and opportunity.  Maybe it truly is about each of us individually taking ownership, not of our things but of our stewardship.  Maybe instead of competing in the marketplace for the most goods, our competition ought to be seen in divesting ourselves of the incredible wealth we have accumulated during our lives of privilege.  Is it possible that the hallmark of success could be measured by the number of lives touched, the number of hungry fed, the number of homeless sheltered?  For we do lead lives of great privilege in contrast to most of the other humans on earth, present and past alike.  How even those kings and emperors of antiquity would be astounded at the lifestyles most of us live!

I received a product ordered online the other day, another manifestation of my own consumerism.  It arrived in a carton marked, “Happiness delivered.”  I was immediately struck by the presumption that the product delivered would make me happy, and that I never even had to leave the comfort of my home to achieve such joy.  The presumption was yet one more attempt to equate a purchase with personal and lasting fulfillment.  In reality, the item was one that, yes, I felt (right or wrong) that I needed, but it did not make me happy. That emotion has to come from somewhere else, somewhere from within.  And that is all about me, and my relationship to other human beings.

I am informed in my thinking by Native American perspectives on the idea of ownership, not only the impossibility of owning individual lands but of things, as well: ““It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome… Children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving… The Indians in their simplicity literally give away all that they have—to relatives, to guests of other tribes or clans, but above all to the poor and the aged, from whom they can hope for no return.” (Charles Alexander Eastman, Santee Dakota Physician, 1858-1939.)

I’m not an ascetic and thus cannot call others to such a lifestyle.  But I recognize, like Native Americans long before me, that what we have- whether in material, opportunity, education, energy or aspiration- is never owned by us.   Rather, any of these are gifts to be shared in the best ways that we can, part of a collective competition of largesse, and our lives are truly about discerning how to do just that….