How do we bear it? I don’t mean put up with whatever annoys us, but….how do we sustain life itself amid the traumas, bruises and faults that define the human journey so fraught with frailty? Some are too public to imagine: high school kids live streaming a semi-automatic weapon fired in a social studies classroom. Others are too intimate; praying with my brother’s immediate family as his ashes are committed to the ground, only forty feet from where his oldest daughter already lies. Bearing.
My dad, an engineer, knew about bearings—the most finely refined part of any machine where weight is born, friction managed and motion made possible. If the bearing is lost or locked, everything blows across the landscape in seconds. A bridge rests on bearings between the superstructure, which has to shift and the foundation, which can’t possibly move at all. He designed the “blue bridge” that was built in 1940 across the Mississippi at LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Still carries 7,000 cars a day. Good bearings.
Human communities are built to bear each other’s burdens. We would never have lasted long enough to even compete to fight with any other mammals without being able to bear each other. Our mother’s bore us and have to bear our frailties even unto and through teen years (almost unbearable). The bearings of human life are where we absorb each other’s weight, friction is managed and motion made possible. If we cannot organize ourselves to bear each others’ burdens, everything blows across the landscape before our eyes.
That is exactly what is before our eyes on every screen today.
Whose job is it to bear the burdens of the very young and frail, sad and vulnerable, the stranger and those loose from their people, the immigrants?
How will we bear it?
The National Academies of Science Roundtable on Population Health Improvement will hold a full-day public exploration of one key point of bearing, collaboration between the structures of healthcare, public health and faith. If you wanted to disable a society, this collaboration/bearing would be the one to destroy, which is happening before our eyes. The failure of religious leadership to lend strength to the social fabric makes it impossible for the whole to stand. The question before us is not how to start from scratch in building the collaboration, but strengthening the bearings that may be rusted.
You’ll be welcome to join this discussion at Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina, March 22nd 8:30am to 5:00pm. The free, one-day public workshop will explore challenges and opportunities for health sector actors that engage with “faith-based health assets.” These organizations and social structures, in the form of congregations and religious community service networks, collaborate with others in communities, including health systems and public health agencies, to improve the conditions for health and well-being. The workshop will:
- provide an overview of faith-based assets in communities and their relationship to population health and the work of health improvement;
- highlight areas where faith-based health assets are using evidence to inform their work and demonstrating effectiveness in improving health outcomes;
- provide examples of effective partnerships involving faith-based health assets; and
- share lessons learned from working with faith-based assets that could contribute toward principles for engagement for health care organizations and public health agencies.
You’d think we’d already know all this but it turns out that we humans have to learn even the most basic arts of life every single generation. There could be nothing more normal than the practical arts of collaboration between these different kinds of structures built for the sharing of burdens—and the preventing of burdens. But these collaborative arts are a bit forgotten in our time, and need to be reclaimed, sort of like wheel bearings need to be repacked from time to time.
It is not hard to map the needs, and not much harder to run the list of programs that might rise to the task. It requires a high art of leadership to see all the assets and how they might be appropriately brought into alignment with each other. Alignment means more than money. You can rent (but not buy) a congregation. You can fuel, but not purchase, the capacities of public health science. And while there seems to be no end to the cost of healthcare, there is a profound limit to what money alone can do to drive quality and be trusted enough to be accessible in any meaningful way.
This one day is about seeing the assets of the structures of faith and what we can learn about the arts of collaboration. Not what they might do in parallel, but what they might do together. It is about how we might bear each others’ burdens so that we can together bear the burdens of what the Bible calls the People, the Public of public health, the humans in the population, whom hospitals are now supposed to be making healthy.
The different ways of speaking of bearing point toward Michael Wear, who has thought harder and more clearly than most anyone about finding the voice of normal Christian public witness. He served along with Joshua Dubois in the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships. He has lamented about the failure of the Democratic Party, including a certain United Methodist named Hillary, to actively include the progressives of faith as visible allies. There were probably enough in Cleveland to flip that state, if they’d only been asked. His new book, Reclaiming Hope, lays out the case for how to speak in public about the public without abandoning the energy and language of normal faith. In an article for Christianity Today he distills his counsel down to a few pages as he looks to Paul and the ragged gaggle of the early church for precedent for how to work in a highly polarized and contentious time:
“Into this polarized environment, Paul instructs them to do something radical, something completely contrary to everything polarization promotes: They ought to “carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2, CSB).
“Everyone together is part of a community as children of the same God, and therefore they ought to “carry one another’s burdens.”
Wear says that “a nation is a different sort of community, but it is a community all the same. The call to carry another’s burden is an extraordinary one, but these are extraordinary times. In our increasingly polarized nation, when many elected officials and their strategists believe they need to listen only to those who already agree with them, we must carry our neighbors’ burdens into politics with our own.”
How long will do we have to bear it? This brings us to the last bear, which comes from Dr. Joycelyn Elder, another United Methodist from Arkansas. She used to say that, for those seeking the health of the whole community, the work is like dancing with a bear; you don’t stop when you get tired; you stop when the bear gets tired.