WHAT is ours to do?
Only time will tell what the results of our November election mean to us. But one thing I’m sure it means: Helen Price Johnson, a local politician that I admire and respect, will be serving her third four-year term as one of our three Island County Commissioners. Right after the election, in the midst of hearing sometimes-despairing discussions among fellow-islanders, I reached out to Helen, asking her to join me and a dozen others for tea and conversation. She agreed, and we asked her to consider one question: At the local level, in this current political culture, what is ours to do; how can we make a difference?
Though we talked for over ninety minutes, the conversation boiled down to two words: CIVICS and CIVILITY.
Remember what you learned in sixth grade, about how our government works? Neither do I. In my living room at that afternoon tea there were more college degrees than there were people, but we were grossly uneducated about civics, especially as it plays out at the local level, and most especially in a rural county like ours. Helen offered a quick tutorial, but we realized we need to learn a lot more about how it all works if “what is ours to do” is going to get done.
As for the “civility” part, I’ve personally seen, and marveled, that Helen practices what she preaches: “Disrespectful behavior in the public forum is not okay. Demeaning others is not okay.” These days, social media, even emails, allow senders to hide and impersonalize anger. “The ugliness is coming from a very small number,” Helen says, but it can be made to seem huge in social media. We have to utilize our own social connections well, “by uplifting, not demeaning.”
HOW shall we do what is ours to do?
The night of the elections, I had dinner with a dear friend. He told me that “the Pope has officially approved of your book.” This friend is sometimes a jokester, so I waited for the punchline. Instead, he handed me a small clipping from the Wall Street Journal, with the headline, “The Pope Proposes New Set of Beatitudes.” Of the six new Beatitudes the Pope has suggested, the one my friend had circled was: “Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalized and show them their closeness.” That, my friend said with a twinkle in his eye, was the Pope’s “blurb” for my book, Meeting in the Margins!
But I bring up that news item in this blog because several of the proposed Beatitudes might give us a clue about what attitudes might be helpful as we do what is ours to do. Like “Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home.” And “Blessed are those who renounce their own comfort in order to help others.” And “Blessed are those who see God in every person.”
Seems to me these are workable, non-political, civil attitudes for the months to come. Not easy, but necessary if we are to do what is ours to do.
WITH WHOM shall we do what is ours to do?
I’m reading a book by J. Michael Gospe, M.D., entitled We Can, But Should We? The book is a collection of stories that revolve around gnarly bioethics dilemmas. All I want to share here from the book is a simple but potent phrase: “COMMUNITY OF CONCERN.” It was coined by ethicist/moral theologian, Jack Glaser, and he used it to replace the more elitest-sounding “medical ethics committee.” A Community of Concern is gathered to bring a wide variety of voices together around a difficult decision, and it need not be a medical decision. The Community of Concern listens to all viewpoints, then works to narrow down the potential solutions, always focused on and respecting the VALUES on which the viewpoints are based. No one person has the “right” answer. A solution requires the wisdom of many.
When I consider my activities in the coming months, I hope to be part of many ad hoc Communities of Concern willing to gather, to listen, to discern, and to act in service to the needs of our local citizens.
At the end of our afternoon tea with Helen, we asked what we could do to support her in her third term. She said, simply, “Keep in touch with me. And help me see whatever I’m not seeing.” That will be my pledge to her, part of what is mine to do for my local government, part of my civic life in these difficult times.
In the meantime, next week in Island County Superior Court, our newly re-elected County Commissioner will be sworn in by Judge Alan Hancock. I plan to be there, probably with a lump in my throat as Helen recites her oath of office. I remember just enough civics from sixth grade to recognize the magnitude of her commitment to do what is hers to do with persistence and civility.