Here’s something I learned from a remarkable Sunday school teacher [who demonstrated by attempting to balance a pencil on one finger].
You see this pencil? I can get it to balance here for a second or two. But then it wobbles. So I tweak it, to restore balance. If I neglect to tweak it, it falls. It may break. That’s life. An inevitable struggle to restore balance and affirm life. That’s the human condition. And our responsibility is to work ceaselessly to restore this balance and repair our world – which is ever in danger of breaking.
I find this lesson especially resonant at this particular time.
For the social benefit sector. For my country, the United States of America. And for our world and all its peoples.
It boils down to one Hebrew word:
It means justice. It also means balance.
It’s a word I’ve known all my life as the root of the word tzedekah, which I considered to be more or less equivalent to the word charity. But what I learned from my son’s teacher is that tzedekah is more about fairness than caring. You do the right and just thing, regardless of how you feel about it.
This, to me, is the broad mission of civil society. It’s a values-based communal endeavor to make our world a better and more caring place. We step into one anothers shoes, imagining that “there before the grace of G-d go we.”
Empathy is essential for the survival of society.
Darwin, best known for “survival of the fittest,” actually meant it an entirely different way than did Herbert Spencer (who borrowed the term). Darwin’s research showed that the fittest societies — those that survived — were those that cared for their members. All of them.
We have a choice.
Go it alone, or go it together.
Help others, or only help ourselves.
Welcome the stranger in need, or turn our backs.
Insist on straightforwardness and honesty, or succumb to hyperbole and propaganda.
Forgive honest, humbly-admitted mistakes or embrace self-serving and harmful deceits.
Those who work in the social benefit sector have made their choice.
To embrace public service outcomes; not acquire personal fame, power and money.
To focus not just on “winning,” but on assuring the game is fair for all.
To value the kind and steady hand in a lurching, agitatedly altering, often mean and violent world.
There is much about which reasonable people can disagree.
But what happens when reason leaves the room?
We rely on moderating influences to restore balance when things get out of whack. That’s why nonprofits have both executive directors and boards of directors. Staff and volunteers. That’s why the United States’ government has three branches.
But it’s not enough to depend on predictable systems to keep unpredictable people in check.
When people exceed the limits prescribed by reason, they must be held accountable.
That’s when the reasonable people must step in.
In a recent article, “How Leaning into Fear Can Change the World,” I wrote: If there’s an unspoken danger you’re afraid to address, speak up.”
I’ve been afraid to speak up publicly, until now. Now I must lean in.
To protect the values and ideals upon which our fragile civil society and democracy rests.
To restore balance to a wobbly world.
That’s why when the First Lady of the U.S. says: “When they go low, we go high,” I hear the echo of tzedek. Justice. Balance.
And I make my choice.
Make yours — as if the balance of the world depended on it.