“In my entire career, I’ve never faced anything like this. It’s so hard to know what to do.”
This private confession from a well-known leader in our community was not surprising. It would have been surprising to hear someone say confidentially that he or she knows exactly what to do.
When a crisis comes we want our leaders to have private doubts, because we want leaders who are willing to confront complexity, who face difficult decisions head on, who think about direct consequences of their actions and also look into the future to anticipate indirect consequences as well. We want leaders who are not afraid to deal with uncertainty.
But we do not want leaders who are hesitant, paralyzed by indecision. We want leaders who will focus our attention, who can deliver a strategy that will unite us and guide us through the crisis.
We are drawn to people who can show us the way, and that requires people who know the way. It requires people who have spent time sharpening their focus, daily sifting the wheat from the chaff, gradually developing their capability of functioning in just such times as this.
Such people are often unappreciated when times are good. They tend not to be the life of the party. They do not spend much time honing their reputation. They are too busy working on the important things that we all rely upon but take for granted.
When the time comes, they show up for work.
We see such people showing up all around us today: public health officials who for years have been diligently preparing for a pandemic behind the scenes; grocery store managers keeping their teams focused while they expose themselves daily to potential carriers; neighbors volunteering to look after children until the schools once again open their doors; nurses willing to put their own families at risk in order to care for those who are suffering.
In the midst of crisis, we are witnessing a restoration of the common good.
Sure, there are people like the man in Tennessee who hoarded 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer in the hopes of profiting from the demand. But such people are the exception, not the norm. And even he, once he learned how serious the health crisis was, donated his supply to a local church to give away.
People are complex. Ordinarily, we are motivated by all kinds of selfish concerns. We tend to be irrational, moody, given to pettiness and self-absorption. But we can also be kind and generous, capable of extraordinary self-sacrifice. Nobody is just one thing at all times.
The reason for the puzzling contradictoriness of human behavior is that we follow the direction of our attention. When we attend to selfish concerns, we act selfishly. When we set our minds on a greater purpose, we find we can transcend our normal limitations. We rise to the level of our focus.
That is why the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, wrote: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.”
When we focus on the good, we do good.
We never know when life’s circumstances will call upon us to do something extraordinary. We never know when we will be called upon to take our turn as a leader. If we squander our days, just waiting for that time to come, we are certain to fail. But if we prepare ourselves, daily focusing on developing the talents that might be useful, we are sure to be of use.
When the crisis comes, we see where people have been focusing their attention.
It is hard to know what to do in times like this. It is even harder when one is responsible for the livelihood and well-being of others.
But deep in our hearts, we know we were born for more than pleasure. We were born for goodness. And this is a time to show what we can do.
March 18, 2020