Let Us Notice

Everybody’s hurting–economically, I mean.  Or at least, they think they are.  Rich people, poor people, and all the people in between.  And cities and states are slashing their budgets drastically, as well.  But let’s stop kidding ourselves: who is really taking the hit?  It’s, as per usual, the most vulnerable in our society.  The cuts come in education and in services to poor people.  Health care for indigent families gets sliced, and college loans for young people who want to better themselves.

I read in the newspaper that in tight times, the call for cosmetic surgery is down.  It appears that 25 percent fewer people since 2007 want to have their fat siphoned off with liposuction.  Twenty-one percent fewer want their stomachs “tucked.”  Breast augmentation is still, well, relatively big, with a loss of only 11 percent. 

So one woman is complaining because she can’t really afford that blepharoplasty (that would be “eyelid surgery”) this year, while another woman is wondering how she’s going to feed her children that evening, if she pays the electric bill. 

Imagine this: a group of people are on a luxury liner cruising the ocean, and they suddenly see a small craft, sinking in rough water, the family on board calling for help.  Would the liner just cruise past, with the passengers complaining about the minor jostling of the rough sea–or would they do everything possible to save the family?

Or suppose a well-to-do family went on a picnic, and on their grassy path, they came upon children who had not eaten all that day and who were asking for food.  Would not they open their bulging picnic basket and share their food with these children?

Sometimes I think those of us who have plenty simply suffer from lack of imagination.  We somehow have the idea that we deserve what we have.  Who deserves anything at all?  We live through grace and the work of many others.  Or another way of looking at it–who does not deserve?  Who does not deserve food and shelter?  Which human beings do not deserve this?

People say, “I work hard!”  I say I know people who work twice as hard and don’t make enough to live on.  People say, “Poor people are just lazy,” and I think of the young Hispanic man who is busing their table at the restaurant, or the maid from Puerto Rico who is cleaning their toilet in the hotel, and who will take the bus home late at night to a small rented house where eight others live. 

Perhaps compassion comes down to nothing more than specifics.  Numbers, statistics–how boring!  So let us leave the abstract and be present with the real.  Let us notice the hole in the shoe, the fly on the wound, the limp in the walk, the shout in the night.  Let us notice, and care.



You Can’t Go Home Again

This past week I spent several days in Homer, the little N. Louisiana town where I grew up.  I went there to attend my 50th high school reunion, and once I got used to the idea that I actually graduated that long ago, I began looking forward to the event.

Almost as soon as I arrived at the afternoon gathering which opened the festivities, I learned that 11 of my 48 classmates were dead, 2 from suicide.  Then I talked with another classmate to whom I was particularly close, and I asked about his older brother.  He spoke in hushed tones: “Oh, he’s been dead for 30 years.  He killed himself.”  Welcome to Reality Reunion.  I wondered if this percentage of losses was normal, or if we were particularly prone to death–at least the men in our class, for 10 of the deceased were men.

My classmates were grown-ups.  They were (mostly) not playing games or being shy or competing.  They were just who they are, and glad to be there with one another.  The beauty queens were still pretty, if a bit thicker at the waist.  Some of us nerds had blossomed into more attractive adults.  People mainly had stayed married, many to hometown friends.  One woman I knew well had had a stroke and needed to remain seated.  Another who had been my college roommate had had a double mastectomy and had almost died a couple of years ago from a blood clot racing to her heart.  The top student in our class looked great–he had become a doctor, board certified in two specialties.  But his wife barely made it to the reunion.  She was suffering from a neurological disease which almost killed her last year, he said.  She looked pale and drawn.  He reminded me that in high school he and I “had been competitive.”

Maybe we had.  I didn’t remember it that way.  And now, what did it matter?  My classmates and I laughed and talked, lost in memories,  There was nostalgia and real joy, and yet all the talk seemed somehow laced with a nervous hum.  We were all standing on the edge of time, and we knew it.

The slights were recalled: the time I was left out of the pallet party, the way I always sat on the end when our group went to the movie, the fact that I never, never had a date, not even to the prom.  It didn’t matter.  Many dreams had been dashed, mine and theirs, sooner or later.  We had all suffered, and we would all suffer still more.  And each of us would die.  We had each had our little triumphs, our moments of joy.  Each had taken a.different path, some more exalted than others, and yet each had in common, this keen sense of mortality. We came together for this brief time, we touched, and all was forgiven. 

So you can’t go home again.  There’s no margin in doing so, for that home is frozen in time, is merely memory, and no longer exists, as soon as you step out of that page of your life.  You bring this new self, your changed self, back into that remembered time, and you smile.  You wish you had known then what you know now: we’re all afraid that we’re not enough.  In those trying high school years, each of us needed a little bit of kindness, some affirmation.  We still do.  It’s never too late.       


Slouching Towards Ethics

Students in the current graduating class of M.B.A. students at Harvard are being asked to sign on the dotted line–no, not for a fancy job that will bring in six figures–they are being asked by their peers to sign the “M.B.A. Oath,” a pledge to act responsibly and ethically and to refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of other people.  Seems simple enough.  Doctors have to sign a pledge saying that they will try to heal people.  Judges have to pledge that they will uphold the Constitution.  Ministers promise a variety of things, often including the exceedingly difficult one, “to speak the truth to power.”  But only a scant 20% of the Harvard M.B.A. class was willing to sign. 

The headline in the NY Times (5/30, p. B4) reads “A Promise to Be Ethical in an Era of Immorality,” and the writer seems to be impressed that all these young business people are signing such a vow.  I’m wondering about the other 80%–are they not planning to act responsibly and ethically?  Are they planning to advance their own narrow ambitions, in spite of who gets hurt?  If so, could we have the names of the non-signers?  They’ll probably be investing our retirement funds in a few short years.

When I read this article, I was reminded of a graduating law student, a member of First Unitarian Church, who told me some years ago that he had asked his fellow graduates to sign a pledge reading: “Before I take any job, I will ask myself whether or not this job contributes to the greater good.”  Note that the pledge doesn’t ask anyone to refuse a job that doesn’t contribute to the good, but merely to “ask myself” the question.  As I remember, seven law students agreed to sign.

So what’s going on?  Change is rearing its difficult head, and it’s going to take a while before ethical behavior becomes the norm in business, if it ever does.  But this is a new leaning in the right direction.  The norm can shift.  People will become ashamed of shoddy behavior  when enough of their compatriots clearly disapprove of such behavior instead of admiring it, if it makes a buck.

This is not to say that all business people are unethical and money-hungry–not at all.  And when I see a business like Neil Kelly or New Seasons and watch the values they operate by, I take hope for the future.  It’s just that they seem to be the exception and not the rule. 

Bruce Kogut, director of the Sanford C. Bernstein & Company Center for Leadership and Ethics, says that students are beginning to think about how they earn their income, not just how much.  (What a concept!)  He says,”They see inequities and the role of business of address them.”  I ask you, how could business students at a school this sophisticated not understand the role of business in addressing economic inequities?  Adam Smith understood something about the relationship of capitalism to community and the larger good–don’t Harvard M.B.A. students read Smith, like in the first semester of B school?

The fact is, though, it doesn’t matter what you read, or what your teachers say, if the cultural ethic is all about greed.  People will do what other people do, almost always.  Those who don’t, surprise us with their integrity. Change will come with leadership and education around these issues, and when the norm becomes service, these grads will want to serve.

Sleazy business practice will then become like smoking–you’ll have to leave the group and sneak around out back to do it.  I can hardly wait.