Headlines from First Thoughts

Friday, March 13, 2009

Big Thinking

According to the state constitution, three kinds of people cannot hold an elected office in Tennessee: atheists, duelists, and ministers. Since I fall into one of those three categories, I had a unique perspective last week as I walked the halls of the Tennessee General Assembly. I was there for the first time on a field trip with my Leadership Knoxville class. I learned that we have a hard-working delegation from this region. We should thank anyone who is willing to run for public office in this climate. I also learned the best lobbyists are Brownie Scouts.

The halls were filled with every niche-based cause vying for the attention of public servants. Brownie scouts handed out cookies for better treatment of dogs. Charter school kids called for more funding. EMS workers asked for reimbursement of services. I did not see any atheists or duelists.

We arrived conveniently when the stimulus bill bought the state enough time, bridges, and caulk to delay the pain of rapid reductions in services and salaries for another two years. Every little cause and college in Legislative Plaza breathed a sigh of relief. The rest of us wondered how to prepare for 2011.

When times are good, we fixate on small stuff like football scores, fuel prices, and flipped houses. In exchange we get small-minded behavior like million-dollar buyouts, materialism, and mortgages. Who really pays attention to lifestyle when you can basically get all you want?

In times of pain, we are forced to ask bigger questions of ourselves. We know that we cannot arrest, incarcerate, buy out, conquer, invade, or vote out all of our problems. We are required to think holistically through priorities, challenges, and the cliff that we are about to drive across collectively. These questions transcend partisan, religious, gender, and socio-economic boundaries. Let me propose three examples as a starting point.

How do we produce ethical people for the 21st century? Education cannot be solely about workforce development, graduation rates, and test scores. These are important outcomes but not the only ones. If our only goal is to compete with India for engineers, then we have already lost a much greater battle. Our current political, athletic, and education systems generated this crop of bad decision making from the past 30 years. If we graduate students who do not have the values and character to make fair, equitable, honest, and just decisions, then we do not have an education.

Second, how can we create, strengthen, and rehabilitate families? The culture war has diverted attention from a large beam protruding from the eyes of the married. Most people who say "I do" eventually say "I don't." Most children in Tennessee live in single parent and/or multiple home environments. The current foster care, adoption, and marriage institutions cannot sustain a society for another century with kids flung like Frisbees from one home to another. My institution, the church, has failed miserably and has not modeled sustainable behavior.

Third, how do we serve our neighbors who are less fortunate without enabling a continual cycle of dependence and poverty? When the pain of this recession is over we will have fewer non-profits and greater needs. Loving our neighbors as ourselves requires collaboration with public, private, religious, non-profit, and business sectors. Citizens can no longer say, “That’s not my responsibility”; or “that’s what my church/taxes/United Way is for.” Every person must search deeply and see at the end of life that none of it fits into the pine box at the cemetery. The needs of the world go beyond the needs of those related to me biologically. We must begin to treat our society as we would our grandchildren and understand that our society is held accountable by how we treat the least of these.

These are just a few of the larger questions. I am sure you can think of others. We have the time. I know who can provide the cookies. Now we need the venues and the people to engage in the conversations. With larger thinking, we will see some grand ideas and people emerge from this generation for times like these.

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