Tag Archives: Wisdom

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….



Falling In Love Again

I’ve been thinking about a blog post written by my colleague, Rene Mendoza, and posted here last month.  The title of Rene’s article was, “Can the Youth Fall in Love with the Countryside Again?”  It’s a provocative idea, in that the data suggests the Nicaraguan youth see little hope in remaining on the family farm, their conclusions relying on analyses of family farm economics as well as, ironically, their own education.  (My apologies, Rene, if I have over-simplified or simply missed their outlooks!)  Rene goes on to offer an alternative and hopeful conclusion, one that I’ll affirm here, though for different reasons.

I’ll first need to acknowledge the “elephant in the room.”  The independent producers in rural Nicaragua are, for the most part, extremely poor.  They have little margin for error in their production cycles, whether the difficulties are the result of natural calamity, market gyrations or corruption.  At best, farmers face incredibly difficult logistics: availability of crop inputs do not always coincide with available finances, most producers rely on mill services at other locations, the roads are often little more than unimproved paths, and transport of the harvest to  a reliable marketplace can be a game of chance.  So, yes, let’s acknowledge the very real and complex issues facing the grassroots producers.

Next, I guess I should recognize the “rhino in the room,” the seductive “siren call” of modern society.  Though rural Nicaraguans lead lives far-removed from the technologies and industries of large urban populations, they do not live in solitary confinement.  Televisions, smart phones and Internet access provide an all-too-clear depiction of conveniences and gadgets that are sleek and enticing enough to beckon even the most resistant young person, even those who are prone to remain in the countryside.  It’s a call that reaches nearly all youth these days, with amazements that have names like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Google.  The names even sound like a playground.

Then, there’s also the “hippo in the room,” that vast and universal gulf between one generation and the next, where the elders are seen as archaic and the youth as inexperienced children.  Although Nicaraguans do not have an exclusive monopoly on this circumstance, they do endure the contextual reality of being called the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  That’s more than just a bad name, it’s a brand, and one that any new generation would not appreciate receiving from an older one.

So, locked in a small room with the beasts of the wild, is it realistic to really believe that the youth can fall in love with the countryside again?  I think the answer is yes, and for reasons that transcend the presence of the beasts which prowl there.  The beasts are capable of being tamed.  It’s part of the reason Winds of Peace and others are there, in the effort to at least tame the wild game.

The beasts are not immortal.  While their visits can be life-threatening and sometimes long, they can and do move on.  What’s required is the chance to eliminate their feeding grounds: despair, lack of education and a forgetfulness.

Our partners in Nicaragua have never lost hope.  Despite battles with natural disasters and man-made troubles and sometimes fickle and deceiving markets, some Nicaraguans are seemingly impervious to despair.  It’s a critical matter, because where despair is denied roots, hope grows, confidence takes hold and what was once old becomes new.

New.  It’s what seems to attract youth no matter what the context.  The next generation is always focused on charting a new way, their own way, and even if the way is remarkably similar to the way of their elders.  The education of the youth permits them to experience the countryside and its character in ways very different from their parents.  Education of the youth is the fundamental building block for the progress of the country; ability to read and write and conduct basic math are the keys to doors long-closed for many in rural Nicaragua.  But sometimes what the youth learn in class contradicts what they have experienced in the fields: the taskmaster of economics and the glamor of a technological revolution can quickly mask the solitude of the morning, the presence of neighbors, and the strength of community.  Economics might suggest that money is made by selling off components of life, by trading what is inside them for things that will never be truly part of them.  The Internet allows access to virtually everything that is fantasy and fact, but sometimes overlooking that which is really of value.  The education of the youth is the essential ingredient for their development, but only when  they are  taught within the context of all of life’s values.

The real hope for the youth falling in love with the countryside is perhaps not so much found in the technical and operational teachings derived from their education, nor in their search to separate themselves from the known; children eventually come to recognize the wisdom of their parents.   Maybe it’s as much dependent upon the youth remembering what it is that they have loved before, in the days when they climbed trees and fetched water and helped in the fields with family things.  Maybe it’s in the recollection of a history wherein basic dignities of life were worth a family’s struggle, and where human compassion and decency outweighed the heavy obligations of a competitive modern life.  Maybe it’s the discovery of liberation that comes from truth.

Can Nicaraguan youth fall in love with the countryside again?  Yep.  And maybe a good place to start would be for them to talk with those of us who actually search for a love of countryside ourselves, seeking capital in its non-financial forms, hoping to satisfy a longing for honest self-sufficiency, and to remember life in its most basic components….







Undue Burdens

I spent the first week of this month in Nicaragua, my first visit since April of last year and a revisit that was long overdue.  Like most things in life, one cannot truly know a reality without personally experiencing it and long absences from Nicaragua quickly dull the memory of what life can be like for many who live in onerous poverty.  I do not pretend that I experience the same conditions that plague daily life for the impoverished, but I know it more clearly than I ever could by simply reading or hearing about it.

As usual, I spent the week learning: understanding more about the gaps in education at all levels in country against a cultural reality which has been forced to prioritize work over learning;  sitting face-to-face with grassroots producers who experience all of the same vagaries of raising crops as growers around the world, but with the additional hurdles of unscrupulous coyotes who manipulate and cheat the markets; encountering great development works by local organizations which place human dignity and voice at the top of their resource lists; participating in a territorial workshop where small producers are willing to share intimate details of their work, their obstacles, their dreams and their lives.  Who could ask more from the content of a week?

My reflections of that week just past are nothing new.  They include the recognition that the human struggles in Nicaragua are far more basic than the battles which most of us are compelled to fight in the U.S.  Not easier, not more noble, not enviable, just more basic to the work of making a living and just living.  But also, that a large part of the struggle there is the result of manmade barriers to sustainable daily life.  Of course, there are the realities of natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, but even those have taken on a decidedly man-impacted intensity in recent years.  There are inevitable gyrations to the economic markets which Nicaraguans serve- as diverse as insulated wire and coffee- but also North American market perspectives which view the entire Central American neighborhood as a second-rate trade zone.  There is the rich cultural history of Nicaragua- full of achievement and natural opportunity- but one which has been largely gutted by  outside interventions, by the U.S. and others,  over generations and to the present.

Effective development work in Nicaragua thus requires a re-setting of the clock and of the starting line.  If some of those manmade obstacles are to be corrected, as they ought, then consideration of our collective economic, political and social attitudes have to precede such changes.

It’s a shift which will not be easy.  In talking with one well-intentioned North American last week, I discussed with him some of the roadblocks that compromise Nicaraguan development.  I broached, gently, the notion that we in the North bear a fair amount of responsibility for economic difficulty there.  His reply belied an all-too-frequent posture toward those in the developing world: “If they would just learn English,” he said, “it would be so much easier to work with them.”

Speaking the same language, indeed.  That would be a circumstance which might substantially level the playing field in all kinds of ways, for Nicaraguans and North Americans alike.  But the reality of a universal language is not a particularly likely answer to creating sustainable justice, whether economically, politically or socially.  For many people in Nicaragua, learning comprehensive language skills in their native tongue is a stretch by itself; indeed, a third-grade education in Nicaragua hardly qualifies a child as a linguist.  Learning a second language-let alone, the most difficult language to learn in the world (English)- is neither a practical nor a reasonable solution to development needs.  It’s also a little condescending to expect another culture to adapt itself to our language; there is nothing wrong with their own.  A leveling of the playing field requires some other forms of more mutual adaptation.

It’s easy to fall into such colonial thinking.  We are surrounded by our own, comfortable ways which feel right from their familiarity.   A friend of mine recently made the observation that, “In Nicaragua they just don’t work the same way that we do, do they?”  (No, I thought.  They work much harder.)  Yet, as we know intellectually, if not emotionally, comfort does not always translate to sensibility, and certainly not to justice.  In fact, oftentimes those comforts of ours translate to someone else’s burdens.

Getting out of our comfort zones is an important element of expanding one’s line of sight to such burdens.   I was very glad to be back in Nicaragua last week, to see, to hear, to know….




But We Have Flowers

We have been through this before.  The shock, the stunned disbelief at the inhumanity of humankind.  129 killed in Paris.  20 dead in Mali. The vows from the nations to exact punishing revenge.  The promise from the terrorists to bring more death and heartbreak.  The cycle is one that is very familiar to us by now, but in this case familiarity does not coax any comfort.  Indeed, our familiarity with the events of this week are a big part of the terror that its architects seek to build upon, an undermining of our confidence, of the rhythms of our lives, of the certainties around which we live out our days.

The magnitude of the attacks and the brutality of people attempting to destroy the very fabric of a shared existence casts us all into despair, even if only for a moment.  We are lost in attempting to understand the psychology of mass murder.  We cannot fathom the mindset which prompts a youthful jihadist to forsake his or her own life and possibilities.  And failing to comprehend such convoluted thoughts, we are left empty and seemingly without hope.  How do we come to terms with an adversary whose only objective is to obliterate us and themselves?

Amidst the debris of this deadly week, many in Paris and Mali have offered brave declarations of intended normalcy and defiant standing.  The streets of Paris are once again filled with the living, who intend their presence as a statement of resilience and determination.  Their attempts to console each other and the rest of us are admirable, though perhaps not completely convincing; the backfire of an automobile triggers fears that hide just below the surface of courageous postures.  We applaud the bravado, but we know the anxiety.  We have experience enough to recognize it.

Then, as if in response to our collective need for strength and stability, we were gifted with the interview.  If you have not seen it, give yourself the gift of watching it here.  Much of the world has seen it by now, in this age of social media which facilitates bombings and healings in dispassionate and equal measure.  The reporter’s interview was with a man and his young son, two of the thousands who had come to the spontaneous memorial of flowers and candles, laid in tribute to the victims of this current insanity.  The reporter sought to learn how a father might be talking to his son about something seemingly inexplicable.  What the father and son provided is nothing less than an answer for us all, a touching exchange that, in the end, might be the best and the most that we can do.  And it may be just quite enough.

For in the end, none of us will carry the largest gun.  No one can corner the market on deep-seated hatreds.  There are no borders or boundaries sufficient to assure absolute protection from the weakness of humankind.  If the game being played is “last fool standing,” then we all eventually lose anyway.  But in the playing of it, we have choices both personal and collective.  We  have each other, the chance to know love and empathy and beauty and every other good thing encountered in our lives.  Anne Frank knew the truth of it and wrote about it, until her turn was over.

Who can know our final destiny as a species?  A final fool might eventually, in fact,  rule over whatever blighted remains of earth there may be.  But we will have had flowers….

Crossing the Line

Drought or no drought, Steve Yuhas resents the idea that it is somehow shameful to be a water hog. If you can pay for it, he argues, you should get your water.

People “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful,” Yuhas fumed recently on social media. “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,” he added in an interview. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”

Yuhas lives in the ultra-wealthy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, a bucolic Southern California hamlet of ranches, gated communities and country clubs that guzzles five times more water per capita than the statewide average. In April, after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) called for a 25 percent reduction in water use, consumption in Rancho Santa Fe went up by 9 percent.                                                                -Washington Post, June 14, 2015

So now the line has finally, openly, been crossed.  No longer do such feelings reside in unspoken thoughts or in dark corners of consciousness.  Someone has finally come out to state the perspective of many affluent “one per centers” around the world: when it comes to human essentials like water or food, we are not equal.  In other words, one man’s green lawn should take priority over the very lives of others, as long as he can pay for it.

This may not come as a surprise to everyone.  After all, in a world which produces sufficient food to satisfy the entire world’s hunger, we allow more than 795 million people to struggle with insufficient food access, even today.  We seem content to live with that fact, so maybe this class perspective with regard to water is simply more of the same. (Whether people elsewhere die from starvation or dehydration is of little importance, I suppose.  As long as I have mine, who cares?)

But somehow, the attitude reflected by Mr. Yuhas, above, has an additional callousness and arrogance attached to it.  His attitude might be more easily overlooked if it pertained only to poor people in far-off countries; after all, we find distance an immense comfort to conscience on such matters.  But in this case, his disdain is aimed at fellow Californians, fellow Americans, his neighbors.  It represents a purity of narcissistic selfism to claim that his non-essential desires for water use should take precedence over others’ essential water needs, just because he is capable of paying for them.  In a just society, citizens espouse prioritization on the basis of human values, not cash in hand.

In a country which loves to tout its sense of rugged individualism, we would do well to remember that the privilege of that individualism is not without boundaries.  Nor was that privilege attained by virtue of single actors creating that reality.  We became a vibrant society by virtue of collective effort and actions, deferring to the greater good when the larger goals dictated it, forging collaborations and reaping the rewards of that cooperative spirit over generations of self-sacrifice.  If the elitist point of view from California is any indication, those lessons would seem to be lost.  If an elected leader pleads for citizen participation and pain-sharing, the better response is apparently to behave even more wantonly.

We reside, together, on a finite planet.  None of us own any of it.  We are merely stewards of its resources and beauties for a limited time. That stewardship includes the degree to which we ensure that sustainable human life takes precedence over golf greens and that, indeed, we are all equal when it comes to the rights for water….


Memorial Day 2015

Before Memorial Day week is history, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts about remembering those who have fought and died for a cause.

Memorial Day in the U.S. is a day in which to remember those who have fought and died in military conflicts on behalf of the United States.  Like most of our holidays, the original meaning behind the day tends to become lost in the commercial aspects of the celebration.  But upon reflection, many experience- even if only briefly- a somber recognition of the debt that we owe to those who have perished defending our nation and fighting injustice.  Our military dead have not always been fighting for such altruistic reasons, but motivation is perhaps a reflection for another day.  On this occasion, we honor those who have sacrificed their lives believing the forfeit was as important as the cause.

I like the idea of remembering and honoring those who have sacrificed.  Not only is it owed behavior, but it also possesses a cathartic quality, as though we have somehow paid off a bit of an ongoing obligation.  It feels right and good to acknowledge the debt, particularly so when I was neither called nor conscripted to make such a commitment.

As I reflected about this on the holiday, I began to contemplate other groups of people who perished in the line of “duty.”  For surely, every nation has its own version of Memorial Day, a time set aside to recall those patriots who fought for the ideals of their homelands, whatever those ideals may have been, within whatever historical context existed at the time.  Loss of fearless young men and women is a universal experience, wherever one calls home.

In every case of military conflict, both sides of the battle honor the selfless martyrs who were willing to give everything for their cause.  It is the human condition.  We are compelled to remember  because such acts represent the final measure of what a man or woman can give.  It is a state of being that we honor, glorify and celebrate.  And as I reflect upon the reverence we express on our Memorial Day gatherings, I wonder about those who have died “on the other side,” the families left behind, the dreams unrealized and the opportunities lost forever.

For, when it comes to grief, war favors no one.  Though one side of a conflict may emerge from battle having outlasted the other, both sides end up grieving for their losses.  One nation’s sorrow is not less than another’s.  The pain of loss is no less for one family than another.  Indeed, the loss of human potential is an affliction suffered by all of mankind, pieces of the grand puzzle that are gone forever.

From that perspective, I contemplated Memorial Day 2015 in a broader view.  It had less to do with remembering the issues that occasioned fighting, or which side might have fought a more justified war; every nation has been on both sides of that equation.  (Even the U.S. has history of now-indefensible initiatives, such as against Native Americans, African slaves and incursions into places like Viet Nam and Nicaragua.  And around the U.S., memorials are held for both Union and Confederate soldiers from its own Civil War.)  My thoughts this week had more to do with trying to comprehend the nearly-unfathomable costs that humankind has paid for its military ventures, whatever the motivations.

I am not naive nor even a pacifist; my intention here is not to suggest those circumstances which might define “a good war” nor to lessen the importance of the sacrifices that men and women have made in the name of justice.  But for this year, at least, my understanding of just who deserves remembering has expanded significantly, and it extends beyond the colors of any one flag and the borders of any one state or nation….                            images


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….


A Delicate Balance

I’ve been thinking about balance in our lives.  It’s a condition we strive for in all the facets of our very busy days, and without the conscious awareness of it I suspect most of us would quickly fall seriously “out of balance. ”  That short phrase suggests that something in our work or relationships or even our health is out of alignment and thus posing some kind of a threat to our well-being.  The issue is no less true, no less evident, in charitable development operations, where all the players are all jockeying for something, often unspoken, often merely intimated, and even potentially dangerous.

The proposals received by funders like WPF are meant to encompass both the heart and soul of the organizations seeking favor.  The narratives usually include historical recounting of how the organizations grew into existence, the hardships and challenges faced, the holistic benefits that they seek to offer their beneficiaries and the budgetary plans to make all of that magic happen.  Sometimes, it’s even all true.  Oftentimes, it constitutes little more than a picture of what the leaders would like it to be or, even worse, merely what they believe the funder would like to hear.

It’s a bit of a game.  The requestor tries to articulate the words and ideas that will resonate with the funder, and over the years has likely become quite savvy about what stories seem to “work.”  Meanwhile, the funder attempts to discern exactly what is being proposed within the words and interviews, remaining steadfast with its assistance objectives and requirements while trying to be practical about what rural peasants are capable of accomplishing.  A fair amount of cat-and-mouse likely drains energy from both sides.  But sometimes a balance is reached and a partnership is formed, for better or for worse.  The organization gains access to credit or grant funds, and the funder either gets repaid or receives a report about results.  It all happens under the term “development,” and sometimes good results are created.

It’s the same kind of balance that makes for successful business organizations.  The very best corporations create a balance between executive decision-making and the serious consideration of perspectives from the rest of the organization.  Too little of it results in an organization that feels little loyalty or ownership; too much of it creates delays and dysfunction for lack of agility.  Organizational boards of directors face the same balancing act of knowing how far to reach into the minutiae of operations versus watching the entity from a much higher level.  Such balance constitutes the art of organizational governance.

Non-profits have to follow the same laws of balance in their own pursuits of success.  Knowing when to press and when to accept, differentiating personal perspectives from essential truths, knowing how to rely upon experience and wisdom rather than claiming it, wielding authority instead of serving through it; these are critical hallmarks of enduring organizations of substance.

Economic theories, sociological precepts, historical milieu and political postures notwithstanding, progress comes down to the motives and the integrity of individuals.  Naturally, each has been shaped by the influences of those external factors.  But in the end, success or failure is a result of our willingness to maintain balance….