Babylon the morning after

Nevada storms against the fires on the way to see my grandsons in August.

I had not planned on needing a blog about the 10% chance that my people would not win the election. My people might still eke it out, but not the triumphal thumping we wanted. So, while there are many hundreds of thousands of votes to count with the “winner” in the balance, it is not too early to say a few things out loud.

We’re not hearing something. I’m involuntarily humbled enough to know at least that.

Those of us in public health and medicine have failed in profound ways at our most basic task of warning the people about threats and what they needed to do. I certainly thought that a quarter million dead Americans would have been heard more than they were. Perhaps we were out-shouted. But still we failed, allowing the virus to be considered unpreventable, acceptable and inevitable. Bill Foege has called this “slaughter” aiming at CDC leader Redfield. But it’s not just him with blood on his hands. We’re all splattered.

It turns out that it is possible in our highly connected world to still disconnect the dots and shout down the virus, drowning polar bears and a category 4 November hurricane. And it possible to miss how other people connect other dots. Both are deadly.

If the NYT doesn’t join Nate Silver in infamy with its predictive “needles” and my guy pulls it out, we’ll still find ourselves in unintelligible and ungovernable Babylon. The story goes that rich and powerful Babylon was divided and collapsed when it’s people could not understand the multiplicity of languages. They couldn’t hear each other. The anxieties and projected fears did the rest. They had invented some of the first codes of law, dazzling gardens and military end economic dominion.The ruins are 53 miles from Bagdad today. Could easily be us.

The States now Divided should focus on making sense of what the people that don’t understand our tongue are saying.

That’s the last thing I and we want to be relevant to, but probably am individually and as a member of many boundary-crossing networks, identities and roles. I wrote a book some years ago about “boundary leaders”—those who are drawn to the in-between spaces where things are broken, shifting, fluid and uncertain. I started thinking about all that in the failed state of Sierra Leone, curious about who beside myself were drawn to that beautiful mess of a place. Boundary Leaders tend to have more in common with other odd boundary leaders than their family, discipline, faith and jobs of origin. They—we—are often viewed with curiosity, if not active wariness, because we are at home in the in between. Sometimes we don’t even want to be there ourselves.

In times when the in between seems filled with shards, traps and flawed ideas, Boundary Leaders play a crucial systems role by creating with their—our—bodies thin filaments of connections. In the physical body, fibroblasts do that. In the social body it falls to us. I would rather be a brain cell or retina, maybe a fast twitch muscle that have earned Roger Federer so many accolades.

Boundary leaders have friends who embarrass most of their friends. They talk to people—and even like people—most of their friends find impossible. These thin, odd, fragile filaments of relationship create the possibility for the large social body to hear itself. That’s not what I’d want my –our—role to be. But that’s what we—I—need to be.

My day job is leading a group of people who live like this across the many boundaries in between faith, health, public health and and and and. We are Buddhist and Baptist, deeply enmeshed in the networks of undocumented and First Responders, left behind mountain people and those on the streets that are used to generations of isms. We are highly connected, but the opposite of powerful.

Yesterday morning Stephan and I spent 3 hours at the precinct in just this kind of difficult role with a retired military officer who had humbled himself to the role of handing out literature to people who didn’t want it. Stephan and I are pretty big deal executives, too; there because we cared so much about the opposite candidates from Alex. It was prickly and awkward, but when someone in a wheelchair showed up to vote, Alex helped them to the back door while I went and alerted the poll officers to open it up. If had fallen down, he would have helped me up, too. I can’t imagine agreeing on anything else.

We did leave exchanging business cards and tentatively agreed to set up a red/blue softball game. Might be in the Spring when the fevers have broken. I don’t really want to play. But probably should.

About garygunderson

Vice President, Faith Health, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders and Religion and the Heath of the Public. Secretary, Stakeholder Health (Health Systems Learning Group).
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