Tag Archives: Paradoxes

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….

 

 

 

 

Prove Your Humanity

The world for many of us has become increasingly complicated with user names, pin numbers and passwords to allow us access to our digitized world.  Bank accounts, credit card transactions, Internet sites and a host of other “conveniences” require that we provide identification and authorization to get to where we want to go.  There’s nothing dramatically new about this, although the proliferation of such requirements seems to be growing all the time. What may be more important than remembering all the secret codes is recalling where you have written down all such information, because it’s unlikely that we will ever recall all of the individual identifications that we have assigned to our various stores of secrecy.

I encountered one new proof requirement just this week that caught my attention in a different way.  In order for me to access the site which allows publication of these weekly essays, I have long been required to “log in” with proof of me.  But now the site asks for one more verification.  It asks me to add together two numbers and enter the sum into an answer box, to “prove your humanity,” the instruction reads.

I approach such proof-giving by setting aside my concern that I might enter an incorrect answer and be shut out of the publication site.  Hopefully, one’s inability with math is not a screen for humanity.  It may be a reliable test of numeric skills, but I doubt that it comes even close to measuring the depth of one’s feelings for humankind.

I also wonder about the underlying assumption that an accurate addition of two numbers somehow demonstrates a humanity. We have calculators and computers capable of formulaic computations far beyond the abilities of most people.  The addition of two digits hardly qualifies the respondent as a living, breathing creature for whom other human life has meaning.

Proving our humanity, or the quality of being humane, is a great deal more difficult than simply adding numbers.   There is a depth and breadth to the claim of being human that transcends an ability to crunch numbers.  It’s more than simply being born to human parents.

Humanity implies an emotional connection with the rest of the species, a caring, an empathy for “the other,” acts of mercy, a kindness and a kinship with other humans.  In light of such criteria, perhaps we should be very grateful that we are not required to prove our humanity for anything more vital than access to a website.  It might be the case that very few of us would have the identification needed.

Proof of one’s humanity is an interesting assignment.   It’s more than a Homo Sapiens classification; in fact, we know many names in the human register who demonstrated their inhumanity toward others.  It’s more than unconditional love; our dogs give us that.  It’s even more complex than choosing to be a voice for the oppressed; politicians do that to deflect more real and substantive actions all the time.  Rather, our humanity is  measured in the degree to which we are willing to give ourselves away, to assume the mantle of servant and steward on behalf of the other.  It’s welcoming when welcoming is awkward.  It’s giving when we’re down to our own last assets.  Proof of humanity is as demanding as it is compelling.  We long for it, and yet sometimes it is so elusive.

Maybe that’s why the simple addition of two numbers is all that’s required in a website.  Any more certain proof of our humanity might be hard to come by….

 

 

 

 

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

For Cecil, the suddenly world-famous lion who was illegally shot and killed this week, rest has come suddenly and brutally at the hands of his greatest enemy, man.  Having survived epic battles with major rivals and subsequently establishing his own pride of some 22 members, the lion sleeps tonight, no longer part of this complex environment we call life on earth.

The reaction to this event has been immediate and overwhelming.  People from around the world have expressed outrage and sadness over the death of a lion.  Calls for criminal prosecution, extradition of the shooter, changes in law governing big game hunting and significant fundraising for animal protection have all occurred within days.  The anger and frustration over the death of this lion has been extraordinary.

And so has my perplexity.  I count myself among those who dislike the entire perspective of big game hunting.  I felt the same sadness and revulsion as others upon hearing of the unsportsmanlike slaughter of the lion.  But I am also bewildered at the relative lack of care about the people who share space with other big game of the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.  As beloved as the lion may have been, there are other magnificent creatures in the area, not the least of which are people.  And despite the dire circumstances in which these human creatures find themselves, we seem to have a hard time generating much outrage or empathy for them.  Certainly, not even close to the tsunami of reaction engendered by the death of a single lion.

What are we to make of that?  Do we somehow harbor feelings of greater admiration and value for lions than fellow humans?  Is there a difference in reaction because the lion was a known subject of research and the masses are faceless and nameless “others?”  What are the factors that permit us to all but ignore the plight of millions of people?

I suspect that those factors have something to do with the anonymity of the populace in need.  Talk to me about the plight of tens of thousands of people and I move away, too overwhelmed by the numbers and the belief that I could never solve problems of such magnitude.  But describe the killing of a single lion, lured from a protected zone, and I can become emotional about that.

Or maybe it has to do with a name.  Most lions don’t have names, but Cecil did.  The lion was personified.  His personality was well-documented.  He was identifiable and we knew something about him as an individual.  Even the name itself contributed to a connection with this lion.  (Older adults may still recall a favorite animated TV series from their childhoods, Beanie and Cecil.  Those of a younger generation might simply see the name Cecil as a sort of antiquated and “nerdy” name deserving of an emotional cuddle.)  A name provides an identity.

Whatever psychological science lies behind the Cecil phenomenon, there’s a greater sadness and tragedy in this story that is too important to miss.  As beautiful and symbolic as Cecil may have been, his loss pales in comparison to the excruciating and largely unnecessary losses of human lives in Zimbabwe (and elsewhere in the world).  Unless we do, in fact, value lions’ lives over those of human beings, there is an absence of both logic and emotion in the needless conditions of Cecil’s human neighbors that we simply do not acknowledge.

Imagine yourself as the parent of a newborn child who lacks for adequate food and water for survival, and wondering how the world’s attention could so dramatically rally at the death of an animal when the life of your precious son or daughter literally hangs in the balance.  For you, the ignominy of being forgotten is further magnified by the world’s outcry on behalf of a slain animal.

As an outdoors aficionado, I will miss Cecil.  His loss diminishes us both actually and symbolically, which perhaps offers yet another explanation for the world’s indignity at the story.  “We need the tonic of the wilderness” wrote Thoreau, and especially the fantastic creatures which inhabit it.  But as we grieve the loss of one such wonder, let’s not lose perspective.  The lion may sleep tonight, but an anxious mother in Zimbabwe lies awake, in wonder and fear about the source of tomorrow’s needs, and worried about her greatest threats, invisibility from you and me….

 

 

 

 

 

Loans, Leadership and Legacies

We received a project proposal a few days ago, this one from one of our longer-standing partners.  It’s a cooperative that we have admired for its vision, its holistic approach to the well-being of its members and the progressive leadership of its president.  They plan and act in ways that strengthen their cooperative as well as the communities in which their members are located.  In addition to being a reliable loan partner, the have served as a model, of sorts, to less developed coops who wonder what a strong cooperative really looks like.  We hold a great deal of respect for what they have accomplished, against long odds, and for what they aspire to do in the future: yes, they plan strategically.

When I read the project proposal, I once again noted all of the strengths which drew us to them initially.  But I also noted the frequency with which the charismatic president of the coop was mentioned: in addition to the entire introductory section of the proposal being essentially about him, he was also referenced five other times as an initiator of something good in the cooperative.  Clearly, his humility notwithstanding, he is an important guy within the context of the coop.

His prominence in the proposal gives me pause, however.  As essential and visionary as he has been to the success of this group, I wonder about the longer-term effectiveness of his contributions.  Without question, he is one of the broadest-thinking leaders I’ve had the pleasure to come across in my travels within Nicaragua.  Without doubt, he has carried the progress of the coop on his diminutive shoulders.  But without succession, whenever he ceases to lead, all of his organizational ingenuity is likely to become little more than an aftermath, as opposed to a true legacy.

Despite all of the good things going on here, I’m particularly concerned for the future of this coop.  Ironically, the very strength of the coop- its leader- also may be its biggest liability.  The members’ reliance on their president creates a dependency that will be difficult to manage once their leader is gone.  It’s one of the most noticeable challenges encountered in organizational development: balancing the high impacts of a great leader with the need to institutionalize the good things he/she has brought about.  As the adage goes, not all of one’s eggs should be in but one basket.

As it’s difficult to argue with success, a leader’s recognition of the need to develop the next generation of capable and caring leadership is often subjugated in importance.  The successful leader becomes so engrossed in creating new and successful ideas that there is little time for cultivating the same skills in others.  Sometimes the lack of development stems from a “messiah complex,” an ego in the leader which is convinced that there is no one else capable of governing as well.  Sometimes it’s purely a perception of too little time.  It might be a fear of creating capabilities in others which may eclipse those of the current leader.  Or it may be a lack of certainty about how to develop those characteristics in another, a view that prospective successors either “have got it” or they don’t.  Whatever the reason, effective succession is the most frequent cause of once-strong entities becoming weak.  It’s as true in Nicaragua as it is in the United States. All the greatness of a transformational leader becomes but an historical footnote if he/she has not prioritized succession as the most important piece of his/her legacy.  It’s the difference between giving a fish versus teaching to fish.

The good news here is that this leader, among his other strengths, indicates that he sees the critical need for this development in his organization.  He has asked for help in addressing how to create future, holistic visionaries from a population limited in education and leadership experience.  (This is not hard for him to imagine, as he is limited in his own ability to read or write.)  He has begun to avail himself of tools that can develop such succession thinking, in the form of Open Book Management techniques and Lean Process Improvement methodologies.  He acknowledges both the organizational importance and potential detriment of his role as a high-impact leader of the organization.  These are crucial first steps in a very difficult balance in protecting both the current and future states of the coop, which already exists in a context of significant and sudden changes, whether natural or man-made.

For Winds of Peace, making a loan to an organization which presents reasonable capacity for repayment is relatively simple.  A group that is blessed with strong and visionary leadership is more difficult to find.  But an organization that recognizes the essential need for excellent next-generation leadership is the difference between a cooperative of the moment and a transformational legacy for the future….

 

 

The Other

We’ve all experienced it.  It might have been a classroom where none of the other students were known to you.  Maybe it was a conference where every other attendee, except you,  seemed to have an old friend with whom to sit.    Perhaps the first day on a new job left you feeling as though you had taken on the loneliest assignment in the world.  As adaptable as we human beings are, those moments of being “the other” can be among the most excruciating experiences we encounter.  Such occasions are the very definition  of being alone. Whether due to being new to a group, or of different race, gender, age, language or any other distinguishing characteristic of ourselves, it’s a role likely each of us would rather not have to play.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve found myself in just such circumstances a number of times.  Among several college classroom presentations, a conference in Nicaragua and a seminar at a New England retreat, I occupied the role of the other, unknown to those around me, unfamiliar with people who generally seemed to be quite familiar with one another, and in one case, not even able to converse in the same language as my peers.  To be sure, each of the venues was voluntary on my part and my expectations of unfamiliarity were identical to the reality in each situation; there were no surprises.  But anticipating that reality did not make for an easier adjustment to it.

What is the element deep inside that moves a group toward exclusivity and separation?  Comfort?  What is it inside of our own cognizance that tends to inhibit an immediate acceptance of each other?  Fear?  What is the addiction we have to being part of the group, even at the expense of one who is not?  Suspicion?  Psychologists have the answer to these and related questions, I’m sure.  As for me, I’m just left with the uncomfortable feelings.

But I experienced something else, an unexpected phenomenon. Within these moments of feeling apart from the group, one venue left me feeling welcomed.  And interestingly, the place where I was in fact the most “other-wise” than my fellow participants, is where I became most comfortably assimilated.

Seminar Breakout
Seminar Breakout

My week in Nicaragua was spent attending a workshop for rural cooperative members, a “certificate program” which presented the holistic elements of successful organizations and individuals, including elements of cooperative history, organizational innovation, gender issues, environmental impact, spirituality in work and organizational/individual health.  (We even shared a hike to the top of Peñas Blancas mountain, together!)

Everyone to the top!
Everyone to the top!

I arrived at the conference site on Sunday evening.  By Monday morning there were no cliques or sub-groups, only a room filled with expectant participants, fifty Nicaraguans and two gringos.  

Did I mention that, to my great embarrassment, I still do not speak Spanish?  That every word addressed to me and every response I offered had to be filtered through an interpreter?  Integrating with a new group is hard enough.  Inserting oneself into an assembly in another country is more so.  And acceptance in the face of differing languages is a gulf many of us might deem too wide to conquer.  In truth, I had met some of the attendees in previous settings.  But the gathering at the base of Peñas Blancas  embraced me as a full partner in our mutual journey of education, and in ways I do not always experience in such gatherings of such disparate folks.

A smile, a nod, a handshake and even a wave each have the capacity to draw one into the heart of a crowd; I received gifts of each.  Few words were exchanged among us, given my previously-referenced language deficit, but that insufficiency mattered not.  I felt “at home.”

One week later, I attended another seminar, with attendees of similar outlooks on topics such as the environment, energy and the economy.  We traveled from different sections of the country, sought the same kinds of insights and shared similar expectations.  We even spoke the same language.  Yet here, among fellow countrymen and women, I experienced a curious solitariness.  Small groups had assembled for a social hour and busily chatted away, I imagine sharing their stories of travel to the site, renewing perhaps previous acquaintances, discovering those elements of likeness which cultivate the feeling of belonging to one another and the group at large.  Several times I sidled up to a cluster in hopes of inserting myself, and each occasion was met with barely an acknowledgement.  Of course, each moment made the next even more awkward.

Over the course of the weekend, my role as the other dissipated and I connected with any number of friendly and enthusiastic people.  Small group interactions which necessitate collective participation and expose your thoughts, experiences and uniqueness usually open the doors to collegiality and even friendships.  But I can’t help but wonder what there is in our national culture or customs that seems to require this sort of justification before acceptance is extended to strangers.  Are they less worthy in one moment than the next?

Naturally, we are all inclined to make judgments about others based upon what we hear and the behaviors we observe.  But in the wake of the unqualified reception I received in one setting and the awkward time of trial in the other, I now more clearly recognize the duty that I have to others.  New acquaintances deserve my immediate and best efforts at inclusiveness.  It may just be that my Nicaraguan associates have experienced sufficient hardship and trials in life to understand that there is no time for artificial barriers when it comes to embracing the other….

The "Others"
The “Others”

Puzzling Signs of Disclosure

Stick with me on this one, it’s a bit convoluted.

I drove aboard a ferry this week, en route from an island back to the mainland pier.  In the early morning chill, there were not many vehicles making the run.  But there was one vehicle that caught my attention, first in a humorous way and then in a curious way.  Let me describe the back end of the van.

The van was an older model, and clearly had seen some better days; it’s not unusual to see vehicles of this vintage decorated with interesting bits of bumper-sticker wisdom to consider as we drive along.  On the left side of the back end was this quote: “It’s very frustrating to see otherwise intelligent people demonstrating their ignorance.”  (In other words, sometimes people who you think are pretty wise can surprise you with their stupidity, almost always when they do not happen to agree with you.)  I read it out loud to my wife and we shared a good laugh over its embarrassing truth.

But the sticker on the other side of the van quickly muted the moment.  The sticker there read: “If you can read this, thank a teacher.  If you can read this in English, thank a U.S. Marine.”  (In other words,  be grateful that you speak the only real language of importance and that U.S. military prowess has secured it for you.)

It’s not that I suddenly became all serious and sensitive over a simple bumper-sticker; I’ve seen many that were far more offensive in content.  But in reading the second one after the humor of the first, I was stuck by a sense of pathos, both in what was being said and how it dovetailed with the lighthearted humor right next to it.  Did the driver recognize that by posting the second, he fit right into the description of the first?  As one who has struggled to learn Spanish over recent years, in order to better understand and appreciate Nicaraguans with whom we work, I was struck by the jingoistic flavor of the message on the right.  The suggestion seems to be that English is the superior form of expression, that those who speak it are somehow better than others and that our historic propensities for war- as embodied in the exploits of U.S. Marines- are what have secured this preferred form of expression.  I didn’t intend to frown or shake my head, but I did.

Then, of course, the universality of the first sticker occurred to me and I recognized two potential truths from this rolling provocateur.  First, the owner of the van had hilariously (if unintentionally) demonstrated the truth of the first sticker.  The utter nonsense of English-speaking superiority fits the definition of ignorance like a glove.

But then, second, the owner of the van maybe, just maybe, pulled me unsuspecting into a trap.  It may be that in creating such a juxtaposition of messages there on the back of the van, he/she masterfully subjected me to the uncomfortable truth of the first message: no one has a corner on the market for being right.  There will never be a shortage of issues over which reasonable people will disagree, and we run the risk of demise when we assume a default posture that implies any alternative opinion contrary to my own is “ignorance.”  Did I condemn myself by regarding the driver as ignorant on the basis of the message with which I disagreed?

Well, the fact is that I did not ask the driver about the intended message; it is perhaps most likely that there was never any intentional synchronizing of the messages at all, and that they simply presented two unrelated statements, one clever and one rather overtly nationalistic.  I find myself hoping that such was not the case, that the driver really doesn’t feel the superiority of an English tongue.  (I can’t help it: he’s way off base with the second message.)  But if the presence of the two stickers was more than a chance marriage of the two statements, then the back of the van has some grist for deeper reflection, about truths and disagreements and our world views.

I may need to stop overthinking bumper-stickers….