Our Role In The Short and Long Work of Hard Problems

Infant mortality in the Midwest was been drastically reduced by beefing up science and nutrition in college classes for education majors–

so that teachers could teach better nutrition–

so that girls in high school would eat better–

so that pregnant women would be healthier.

The end result was that born children started healthier and were fed better. Infant mortality in the Midwest has dropped 68% since the 70s.

But that took the courage of a man named Paul O’Neill to dig past the urgent and dig for root problems so that substantial and lasting changes could be made. Babies were dying and he worked on college curriculum. (You can read more about it in Charles Duhigg’s book Habit.)

A friend is working on economic alternatives for coal miners in Kentucky,

so that people have an imagination for good pay other than coal mining–

so that people can be financially stable without getting black lung–

so that people’s taxes can be used on things other than healthcare–

so that less coal silt makes it into rivers–

so that fifty years from now Kentucky mountaintops are not akin to redwoods.

Or something harder and further out: A friend of a friend is currently trying to solve economic, transportation, food and waste issues for the poor in megacities that do not currently exist.

Any community needs people who take on the urgent work of strategically putting out the worst fires. But if that community is also concerned for future well being, it will also have people who are asked to sit and think and get to bed at a decent hour in order to find out the root cause of the fires long before the fires actually happen. These types of solutions are almost always decades long in the making.

The current conversation however is more often gathered around burning buildings–each night a new one. Without Googling it, tell me what was urgent a year and a half ago. And how much of it have you given thought to since? What is urgent now that you will likely not care or hear about in another 18 months?

I am not without guilt here, but I am working to get under the frantic discourse in order to do deep and thoughtful work about a small number of things over a great deal of time. It is difficult. Because much conversation is dominated by the current urgent—a 30 second explanation of a problem 30 years in the making. And even worse many of the urgent things are also tragic. How could you not care about this most statistically tragic thing that has happened yet and the problems that caused it?

To show my hand I am of the sitters and thinkers, I used to worry a great deal about this. I still do sometimes. So calibrate the following based on my bias:

First, for the firefighters, supposing that you are putting out important fires and not just someones backyard bonfire, keep up the great work, it takes a great deal of courage, thank you. Now stop getting mad that not everyone is a firefighter. Stop the default to call silence complicity or apathy. Long after you are dead, people will be grateful that someone was sitting in a chair thinking and tinkering while you risked your life.

Second, for the not currently as fashionable sitters and thinkers, pick a thing and learn to be content to be deeply and quietly committed to it. People’s eyes will roll or glaze over when you talk about it, they might accuse you of being selfish with your time. But fight for the space you need—you will have to fight yourself and others for it.

Your work will almost never feel urgent, and there is a good chance all your work will lead to nothing that anyone will notice. You will have to muster your own set of motivations for the long haul. You will need a different type of courage. Many of the good things we have were built by people who did not see outcomes until late in life, or even died wondering whether or not their work made any difference. And still more died having worked hard on a thing that made no apparent difference. You can’t tell which is which when you set out.

Finally I think there is an in-between, a good deal of people who neither want to put out fires nor sit and think. Or they might want to but their capacity only allows them to do it in small doses. I think often these people are maligned or spurred to care against their will. Or they are not recognized for how deeply they care for a few seemingly unimportant things.

There is an alcoholic here in Goshen, a friend of a friend, who does almost nothing for anyone, who cannot function well in public, who is a little too hotheaded to do most people good. But he is a significant support and friend to a couple of people in a way that they really need—in a way that helps those people stay sober, even if he can’t. We tend to aggrandize our own work and lessen the importance of the work of others, and when we do this we potentially distract them from their important work rather than encouraging them in it. Life has dealt us different hands and capacities, I believe we are responsible to play that hand well and nothing more.

My hand was great parents, a big extended family, a thousand acres to play on, a solid education, great brothers and sisters in law. And now a good deal of way-smarter-than-I-am friends. Barring some tragic event, I am fairly set. I feel a responsibility to honor that with my important work. Others have different hands and different responsibilities that are theirs to own.