Thomas Cahill’s marvelously humane history How the Irish Saved Civilization tells how a handful of inspired monks isolated at the far edge of a crumbling empire first preserved and then replanted the most precious seeds of ancient civilization – the ideas and knowledge contained in its greatest Hebrew, Greek, Roman and early Christian books.
Cahill’s concluding chapter reminds us that we cannot know the hour of our own civilization’s great catastrophe, but that we are more like the late Romans than we want to consider: technologically advanced, but living on the fruits of accelerating injustice, violence and corruption that leave more and more billions of people envious and destitute. Cahill foresees an inevitable crisis. “But we turn our back on such unpleasantness,” writes Cahill (in 1995), “and contemplate the happier prospects of our technological dreams.”
“What will be lost, and what saved, of our civilization probably lies beyond our powers to decide”, Cahill concludes. “No human group has ever figured out how to design its future. That future may be germinating today not in a boardroom in London or an office in Washington or a bank in Tokyo, but in some antic outpost or other – a kindly British orphanage in the grim foothills of Peru, a house for the dying run by a fiercely single-minded Albanian nun, and easygoing French medical team at the starving edge of the Sahel, a mission to Somalia by Irish social workers who remember their own Great Hunger, a nursery program to assist convict-mothers at a New York prison – in some unheralded corner where a great-hearted human being is committed to loving outcasts in an extraordinary way.”
“Perhaps history is always divided into Romans and Catholics – or better catholics. The Romans are the rich and powerful who run things their way and must always accrue more because they instinctively believe there will never be enough to go around; the catholics, as their implies, are universalists who instinctively believe that all humanity makes one family, that every human being is an equal child of God and that God will provide… If our civilization is to be saved… if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.”
I know I’m too much a Roman, too little a saint. Still it’s been my privilege to work with a few saints among my colleagues and clients during a career in philanthropy. Cahill reminds us that their dissent from selfishness is not eccentric or futile but essential to our fate. Thank you.
Reflection questions for the year past:
What did we think was impossible this year, but accomplished anyway? What made it possible?
Of all that we accomplished, what makes us most proud? Why is that important to us?
What question was I asked in 2013 that was so powerful I couldn’t stop thinking about it? Why?
I don’t want you just to sit down at the table.
I don’t want you just to eat, and be content.
I want you to walk out into the fields
where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth,
I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.
— from “Rice,” by Mary Oliver
For three days at Netroots Nation 2012, a festival of online media and innovative tech in the service of progressive politics (June 7-9 in Providence, RI), I stuffed my head.
I gazed into the infinite depths of Google Analytics, pondered how to run useful A/B testing on Facebook and absorbed tips that promised to squeeze my every insight into a tight viral bomb of social media.
Each new tool and technique opened up exciting new possibilities. Yet each new app and opportunity demanded time and attention I’d already committed to something else. By the third day, I felt stretched.
Early Saturday, I wandered into a small knot of early arrivers at the convention center, groggy from Friday night revelry. I was balancing coffee in one hand and an iPhone in the other, trying to recall every insight of the last 48 hours while planning for the day’s sessions. Like everyone around me, I monitored the live discussion with one ear, while really focusing on the tiny screen and keypad in my hand.
Jones said that no matter how many views, clicks or retweets we get, the results that matter still happen in the voting booth, in the legislative halls and on the streets. He urged us to “climb into that screen” and take real action to influence the events so many people spend so much time merely reacting to online.
I thought about our grassroots clients at Cause & Effect. Community centers and homeless shelters, land trusts and children’s theaters. Most of them have web sites. Some have Facebook pages. But very few have an active engagement with the online world or any strategy to achieve it.
Yet, our clients feed and house and educate real children. They save and protect real rivers and trees. They hold live performances witdh real audiences. They bring real constituents together face to face and raise real dollars. They do these things every day.
Of course, they could and should get even better results with an effective social media strategy. But not if they let mere tools distract them from real work and real results.
I put my iPhone back in my pocket and listened to Van Jones with all my attention. I felt better immediately.
But I also found in the Dalai Lama’s question, another request. That as we focus on achievement and producing results, we need to also remind ourselves that our humanity, our societal connections formed from kindness and empathy, are achievements too. And ones we need to work at.
“It is not your obligation to complete the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist [from doing all you can do]…”
At today’s annual luncheon and awards ceremony of our client the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, chair of the board Rabbi Alan Flam shared the above quotation from Rabbi Tarfon (c 70CE – 150CE).
I felt it is was particularly apt given the vote by the US House of Representatives who passed an historic but imperfect health care reform bill last night that President Obama will sign tomorrow.
a place of wonders,
and only habituation,
of the commonplace,
dulled our sight.
— Salman Rushdie
What really jumped out from that story for me was a comment made by the branch manager, Ray LeBouef:
” the corporate rationale for the annual holiday dinner is that ‘it builds team chemistry. But I think we need to build community chemistry‘ ”
Thank you, Ray, and the employees of Tractor Supply Company in Coventry, RI, for brightening up my morning.