Thursday, June 28, 2012

One Word: Community

Perhaps you've heard about Ann-Marie Slaughter's epiphany,  that women still can't have it all.  Slaughter's article in The Atlantic has been widely talked about and blogged up quite a bit, and I'm not planning to do that here.  Instead, I want to mention one particular commentator, David French, who used Slaughter's article as a jumping off point for proclaiming that he had his own epiphany:  Slaughter, and all of us, ought to know that we are unimportant, except to our families.

What seems to have motivated French, from what I can tell from afar, is Slaughter's contextualization of her own realization within the unabashed success of her professional life.  She starts her article by letting readers know, if they don't already, that she's been places, done things and known people - important people.  She describes herself at an event this way:

"[As]the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, a foreign-policy dream job that traces its origins back to George Kennan,  [I] found myself in New York, at the United Nations’ annual assemblage of every foreign minister and head of state in the world. On a Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History. I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled."

Ms. Slaughter's job, by her description, is very interesting (to me, anyway), impacts many lives around the world, and gives her access to personal and professional opportunities many of us only dream about.   By any American standard, she can be proud of herself and her accomplishments without arrogance.   

David French apparently sees it differently:

"I found [the article] to be thoughtful, interesting, honest - but suffering from a philosophical flaw, one that has little to do with the politics of gender and everything to do with our view of the world and our place in it.  To put it bluntly, how would Dean Slaughter's analysis change if she knew that the job that she loved so very much was truly not that significant?" 

French argues that our jobs amount to a calling or duty, while the only truly important thing in our lives is our family.  He concludes this because, should he up and die, he would be replaced in his professional role without much fanfare, but his family would actually suffer the loss.  I don't know for sure, but to me French's assertion feels like a judgment about Slaughter's choice - a judgment that her professional ego has gotten in the way of understanding her only real importance - within her family.   The conclusion one would have to reach, given his assertion, is that Slaughter shouldn't even have to ask the question, "My work or my son?"?    Or perhaps I'm reading him all wrong, and this is simply an opportunity for musing back to his personal realization that the world is just not that into him.  I really can't know.  

French says "the relevant question"  relates to duty rather than personal accomplishment or fulfillment.  I must disagree.

As my friend David Weiss always says, "One word:  Community."

I think the relevant question pertains to our dual purpose - as part of a family, but also as part of community.   The Almighty or Evolution or What/Whomever made us as plentiful and individually unimportant as grains of sand, or as stars in the Universe.  Yet, She implanted in us an ego that prohibits us from seeing the universe from the lowly perspective of a grain, or even from the overarching vantage of a star.  She fashioned us with vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch and pain and pleasure receptors.  The ego forces us to filter the world through our own experiences, our senses, our emotions, ensuring that we will take it all very personally.

We have to spend a lot of time "learning" that we are not the center of our universe.  As children, we are taught to make room in our world for the needs of others - to share, to play quietly when someone is sleeping, to wait while a parent finishes speaking with someone else.  As adults, we learn that someone has primacy as our boss, that we have to adjust and compromise with a mate.  Maybe eventually we even spend time studying philosophies that help us learn to "let go" of all that we would control but cannot.  In other words, whatever our purpose here on earth, it requires that we both feel and interpret and personalize our way through the universe, and also know that we are a part of something beyond our feelings and interpretations - grains of sand that together create a larger beach, members of a community that would not function as a community without many hands on deck.  

Here and gone, yes.  But what we do while we're here impacts the quality of life of those around us, and changes the landscape of our communities toward either the sacred or the profane, impacting - if for most of us only as the butterfly effect - the world we leave in our wake.

As humans, personal passion for our work - whether at home or out in the community - is part of our make-up.  The fact that it creates personal conflict is no surprise.  We have to make choices constantly as we ride through life.   Imagine if folks had no passion about their communal duties.   Selfishness for one's own family would propel people to dastardly behavior.  Our world would be a far worse place.   

French says Steve Jobs, despite his contributions, will eventually be old news. Yeah, but not really. Jobs has changed the global landscape in so many ways, and his work will be - already is - the stepping off point for many future technology changes.  

And the gunner David French mentions in his article, the one he was sitting by when he had his epiphany, was also changing the human landscape.  As he ended lives, other connected lives were changed forever, in ways that reverberated, probably for longer than we imagine or understand.  

And when I look at the work being done by Slaughter, by my friends and I, particularly through assorted professional government and nonprofit positions, and also as committed volunteers, I know that the difference we make to those we serve is very real. Real lives are being changed for the better, the community is being uplifted.  It doesn't make any of us indispensable.  It does make all of us important to our community.  

And knowing that it's all hands on deck in this world, yes, of course it creates conflict.  And yes, we do have to ask sometimes, "My work or my daughters?"   

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