Adults, flunking

“We will live together, or not at all. We will build hope and wholeness, or watch our children grow small, surrounded by ineffective barriers against their fears. We know that acts of compassion, nobility, faithful caring for the earth and her people are all we can do. It was once thought that acts of virtue, conservation and care were only of personal consequence. But surely it is the most fundamental adult responsibility to build and nurture systems that carry our hopes forward. (Faith&Health, The Carter Center 2001).

White Dove. Jimmy Carter, 2012

On national bee day (May 20) twenty leaders from Atrium Health met at The Carter Center to see how we might align our efforts to “To improve health, elevate hope and advance healing – for all.” This is a very large organization—some 70,000 people—serving 400 miles of rough Southern country. If the FTC allows, the circle of care will grow to include even rougher neighborhoods in Chicago and Milwaukee as we combine with Advocate-Aurora. Most of the people work inside traditional hospitals and clinics, but increasingly both science and mission draw us over the sidewalk and into the neighborhoods where elevating hope is like pushing a glacier uphill. Despite superabundant healing science and technology to see disease at the molecular level, the fundamental drivers of ill health remain mired in ugly patterns of race and poverty, often in the very same census tracts for many decades.

Adults are flunking adulthood; our children are growing smaller.

Many of my best thoughts were born at The Carter when the oak trees were smaller. The very first major project of The Carter Center was called “Closing the Gap” which asked, “how much of the current burden of premature mortality could be prevented based on what we already know.” Turns out the answer is about two-thirds. Who can act on what we know? Formal healthcare and public health are only a small part of the answer. The knowledge must come alive in the hundreds of thousands of non-profits, businesses and….faith networks. My Atrium Health collegues and I have made reducing live expectancy gap by 2030 our top level goal, so I am back face to face with the same great and still unsolved opportunity that started me in FaithHealth, still difficult for much the same reasons. The ideas that grew out of The Carter Center soil, with major help from our partners at Advocate 30 years ago, included the basic ones we are still working with today: strengths of congregations, boundary leadership, leading causes of life, religious health assets and now the prayers of the people. These ideas were like bridges across troubled water.

One idea we had at The Carter Center was “not even one,” the name from Dr. Fred Smith. Simple public health logic matched with fierce faith that refused to look past even one gun death of a child. We thought adults could be organized at the level of their town to investigate where they—the adults—had missed a chance to prevent each young persons’ gun death. It would take a lot of adults talking to each other.

The oak trees are now much larger and I find myself less hopeful than at any point in my life, sobered by war and melting planet and, most of all disabling political vitriol. So it was good to be at The Carter Center where preposterous things are made practical through tenacious and smart work: eliminating polio and guinea worm. Elections in places they are obviously impossible: Zambia, Liberia, Ghana (where I helped once). Again, diligent and non-naïve preparation, training of thousands of volunteer poll-watchers. Work in the service of noble values. Tenacious. Qualities that national Bee Day brings to view.

Yascha Mounk writes in The Atlantic about the doom spiral of “pernicious polarization”—when a society becomes fearful of its fellow-citizens, expecting ill-will and hurtful actions unprotected by law or norms that can interrupt the most ordinary days, say shopping in a neighborhood grocery story. The research indicates that the spiral is only broken by a cataclysm. You’d think losing one million people to a pandemic would do it, but it seems to have only accelerated the polarization.

Who is crazier, the shooter of children or millions of adults who allow themselves to be radically polarized?

Nobody at The Carter Center has ever been naïve about religion as both an asset and profound barrier to boundary-crossing labor. There was a time when religion itself was the agent of polarization, but that seems quaint now, replaced by raw political anger untethered by any traditional norms or rules. Our children grow small. Some are shot.

On National Bee Day, I wondered, “how do the bees avoid our kind of doom spiral?

Thomas Seeley is an impeccable researcher and professor at Cornell who has written graceful books about how bees make decisions. He has focused on the most profound risky decision of all, which is when a hive splits, sends out the current mother/queen with about half of all the workers to form a new hive. In “Honeybee Democracy” he describes in mesmerizing detail how the oldest members of the hive switch from seeking flowers to scouting for a new homesites and weigh the options. If they choose one too small, they won’t have enough honey to make it through the winter; too big and will be too cold to survive. There are six life-death criteria. The bees get it right more than 90% of the time. They have for 30 million years.

We face no less perilous a passage in finding our way toward a new political, healthcare system, economic and, yes, faith systems even as the natural systems writhe, shudder and buck. We can’t get it wrong. Seeley says there are five clues from the honeybees. The scout bees tell the truth about the many alternatives over 40 square miles. The process takes whatever it takes, maybe an hour, maybe three days. No leader warps the process. No bee lies to another.

Bees use their pin-sized brains collaboratively to scout for the alternatives and compare them to make a choice. (p100) It helps that the idea about “good enough cavity” is hardwired into those little brains. And, as in many things bee, there seems to be no detectible pride at the individual bee level. They share, then release, their individual perspective so the truth comes clear. Not shooting grandmothers and children is hardwired into even human brains. So we at least what not to do. Bill Foege, who led The Carter Center and led the field of public health to embrace gun violence as a disease once said that it is easy to have a brilliant idea; think of the dumbest thing possible and do the opposite. How do we choose the opposite?

There is no future when leaders warp our ability to talk to each other. Nothing works, choices become random and disconnected from reality. We cannot see each other or our children. We are absolutely certain to perish.

Humans do have Spirit to work with, which seems like a slim reed on which to lean. Since we have little hardwiring to move us toward common purpose, we can only hope Spirit is stronger than venal stupidity. We do have a few mature humans, so we know it is possible. But it seems like a slim hope amid the manipulated deluge of divisiveness.

The oaks at The Carter Center grow a little each year. About 15 years ago the Carters planted a small grove of American Chestnut hybrids selected from among the tiny handful that have not succumbed to the blight that wiped out millions. Real science. Tough hope. Carter—then 80 years old–knew he would not see if the experiment “worked” to again blanket the Appalachians. None of us can know any more about the seeds we are planting with our lives.

He is 95 and the trees are still growing. Listen to the man: “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something… My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”

About garygunderson

Vice President, FaithHealth, Atrium Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders, Religion and the Heath of the Public, Speak Life and God and the People. Secretary Stakeholder Health (Health Systems Learning Group). Founder, Leading Causes of Life Initiative
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1 Response to Adults, flunking

  1. Thank you, my friend, for this profound, challenging essay! You are one of “the few mature humans” who contribute to that “slim hope amid the manipulated deluge of divisiveness.”

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