I peered through a hole in our basement wall into a cloud of sawdust where my father fed a piece of wood into the spinning blade. The sound was painfully high loud and powerful, such that I can still hear it, now almost six decades later. I was two or so and learned later the wood was pine, as was all the rest of the cabinets in the home I grew up in, crafted with a mixture of love and parsimony by Dad. The saw, made by Rockwell, eventually became mine and used for most of my adult life as I, too, ripped, spliced, joined and paneled every place I’ve landed. The saw was a primal link to Dad, but over time whined, smoked and wobbled more and more. Once, back when I was earning my living with it doing remodeling, I was moving it from a job site when it bounced out of my nearly-as-old pickup truck, breaking on the pavement. Ken Sehested, knowing my despair, found a friend to weld the key cast iron gear back together, so it lived to wobble on in my life. But eventually the damn thing could no longer hold an angle, sometimes cutting a perfect 45, but more likely 50 or, the other day, 60 degrees. This makes very ugly joinery.
Dad would have hated the crappy quality the saw made inevitable and surely would have found any link with him something of an insult. I finally had to distinguish between clinging to nostalgia and actually honoring my Dad’s woodcraft. So I went to Lowe’s, channeled his spirit, and bought a solid Kobota table saw. I’m in the last stages of a new bathroom in TC and my condo near Old Salem and now have a chance at doing the finish work in a way that the Moravians and Dad would find acceptable.
Our lives are filled with the artifacts of those in whose shoes we walk, feeling our feet slightly too small for the journey. Just before Christmas I met with the ethics committee of the medical center, which had been established by the iconic surgeon, Eben Alexander, decades ago (he’s the dad of the recently famous one who wrote about “proof of heaven.”) The committee he started is still appointed by the chief medical officer, also a surgeon. Although medicine and the health sciences are less and less about what happens inside the medical hotel called “hospital,” the focus of the ethics committee continues to be almost entirely at the surgeon’s elbow. It thinks mostly about what the doctor should do or stop doing. Our current model of bioethics is not looking at the CFO’s spreadsheet, or COO’s deployment plans, or the Board’s capital decisions voting millions to build another office in the burbs, even those decisions shape the life and death for thousands of people over time. One can imagine Dr. Alexander shouting, “I started it; you go the next step!”
Every nook and cupboard among the health field is filled with guilds, national associations (with local chapters!), honoring this and that habitual practice and committee that made some sense long ago. They all have founders and officers—and sometimes even endowments(!)—but have long lost their capacity to cut cleanly or make useful connections. They have not moved with the science that gives more and more power to the integrated strategies managing conditions over time outside the professional enclaves. We live a long time now mainly because of better food and pharma not because we get surguries frequently. So there are way more ethical implications in the price of drugs than when or whether a surgeon does a procedure. They obstruct and no longer aid the joining of good science to good intentions. We need to honor our moral legacy with a new set of intellectual tools nearly as much as I needed a new saw.
We honor those who have given us life by acting with the creative courage they showed in their time; not by doing the same things their courage demanded then, but doing what courage demands now. We grown-up humans build things out of brick and steel. And we craft habits and patterns of power that guide the flow of money and time to the new glass towers. All these artifacts look solid and lasting, but they are as blowing sand at the beach.
I am typing this at St. Helena Island, South Carolina watching another morning tide move another day’s load of sand a few feet up the shore. These are called barrier islands because they protect the vital salt marshes which the tides wash twice a day, nurturing its wildly generative life. Very little important happens on the beach; all the life stuff happens in the muck and goop where the shrimp and a zillion other things are born and nurtured before heading to sea. The sand islands protect this vitality because they constantly move and adapt dynamically to the next big storm and even the next shift in climate rising the level of the seas.
In the handful of centuries white humans have settled here, the islands have moved miles. From the top of the 132 foot high light house you can see a few miles to the waves north east where the old one once stood. This new one (1889) is built to move again. Geologists know the whole chain of islands have moved back and forth for millennia. They last because they are dynamic; they serve life because they change. They are like tools built for a season of good craft.
Those of us holding positions of influence in institutions like to think our work and our organizations are the key to the life of our communities. Smart people at Stanford play to this pretense by suggesting adaptive change is dependent on “collective impact” organized by “anchor institutions.” These ideas are not just wrong, but dangerously misleading. Living communities don’t need to be impacted, but nurtured; they don’t need more anchors but heart, muscle and guts that serve movement. They do need protection from the raw tides, heavy winds and bitter storms, but protection in the service of change, not protection from it.
What else does any leader have to do that protect the creative energy so that it generates life? Do we have something better to do than that. Whether we are stewards of a church or hospital or public health agency or community health center, the life does not come from the edges, but the heart. I learned in Memphis that if I could protect the creative space for those who usually don’t have much power, they would craft beautiful and useful structure perfectly joined to the possibilities the neighborhoods needed. That process is the “Memphis Model” not the specific apparatus that emerged at that point in time. Don’t confuse the craft (mercy and care) for the cabinet (the structure) and certainly not the wobbly saw (me).
Leaders give life a chance by protecting the generative spaces in which life emerges, especially when those spaces need the complex processes over time. Any human community is way more complex than any salt marsh.
This is almost exactly the opposite of the role big institutions want to play. The leaders of the big things like hospitals can always rent consultants who are happy to tell us to tell the neighborhoods how they should live and how they should change, not us. The model for this is the old way that beach engineers tried to build concrete barriers to stop the tides and the natural shift of the sand (sort of like the one now under 40 feet of water a quarter mile from shore). The more we think like anchors, the more we’re in the way of life, which will most certainly have its way with us.
This is why I find surprising hope in the small stirring of faith and faithfulness in the faith-inspired healthcare systems of Stakeholder Health. Just about the time when you think smart and cynical are the same thing, along comes life to surprise us. In reality sometimes, large institutions such as foundations and hospitals can provide some shelter amid the raw power of the market forces (the “hurricane” in my extended metaphor). We can be barrier islands against the forces of raw money power, preserving the neighborhoods’ function as the salt marsh where life flourishes and creates the next generation. It actually does happen sometimes. It could happen more.
Francis Rivers Meza, one of our faculty in the FaithHealth Division, shared an article by Patricia Fernández-Kelly (2012): “Rethinking the deserving body: altruism, markets, and political action in health care provision,” in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies. (click here for the article). She explores the way that religious organizations, including the huge ones such as hospitals, sometimes choose to act against the logic of the capital markets, providing crucial buffering for neighborhoods of poor and often stigmatized people. And they do this on purpose with craft and skill year after year. The authors cite one of our stakeholder health friends, Baptist Healthcare of South Florida and their long term work in Homestead Florida, a place that knows all about the need for barriers against storms.
Life finds a way, Jonas Salk liked to say. Jason McLennan, writing in Yes! Magazine this month says, “If there is one thing that’s certain, it’s that the future hasn’t happened yet.” Bingo! Honor both past and future by helping life finding its next way, not by protecting our old way.