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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2005 04:07 am

Time for a little tenderness

There’s a whole lot wrong with the world. What’s ripe?

At a recent party, a friend was way down. George W. Bush had ruined his Christmas. He was so upset about the state of the world that he could hardly function. There is so much wrong — how can people celebrate? The war in Iraq is wrong. The trade deficit is wrong. The government can’t even take care of people after
a hurricane.

I suggested to my friend that he need not take responsibility for the behavior of the entire United States government, then circulated to another conversation group. But I found that it, too, was focused on politics, wrongness, and the benefits of outrage. “I’m outraged,” the speaker said. “Why aren’t more people outraged?” I soon said a weak “Merry Christmas,” not loud enough to make anybody angrier than they already were, and headed off into the silent night.
As one who has spent a fair amount of effort trying to shake people out of their complacency, I worry sometimes that I no longer get angry enough, because the world — even Springfield — is full of outrages. Yet more often I think those who are always angry are naïvely thinking that government is a friend gone slightly astray, rather than the cunning, powerful adversary that it is. A first step away from despair is to get real. At the highest levels, government is corrupt; at the lowest levels, it is incompetent. At all levels it is driven more by politics than by morality. This is why we say “If you want peace, work for justice.” It takes more than anger; it takes work. Both the left and the right are obsessed with wrongness. What is wrong with America? What is wrong with our schools? A different approach is to focus on ripeness. Where is change about to happen? What’s about to pop? What are the possibilities about to be born? Who’s doing what new thing that just might catch on? There’s a risk in shifting from wrongness to ripeness. First of all, there are more things wrong than ripe — and what looks ripe could turn out to be rotten. But we all look for prophets who can read the signs of the times and tell us when the peace movement is about to break out, or how neighborhoods are struggling back to life, or why dedicated teachers are beginning to make a difference in poverty schools. The best place to find ripening is in the nongovernment sector, in the nonprofit organizations that seem to spring up around every overwhelming problem and lost cause there is. These last few days of the year are a good time to send in some contributions; it will help them along and give you a 2005 tax deduction. Most people say that they get so many requests for handouts in the mail that they can’t possibly answer them all, but it might be worth a try. Every other area of my budget is blown — why not overdo charitable contributions, too? “Give more than you planned to” is a motto that won’t steer us wrong. Let’s see. Friends of the Sangamon Valley (www.fosv.org), for years an advocate of wise land stewardship, is acquiring and protecting natural lands. There’s ripeness there. Inner City Mission (innercitymission.net), the homeless shelter in my neighborhood, quietly goes about its work of housing women and children and changing lives. Communities in Schools (www.cis-sangamon.org) gives life to the idea that getting more adults to volunteer in schools will help both the schoolchildren and the adults. Lincoln Memorial Garden (www.lmgnc.org) preserves a beautiful place and hosts 50,000 visitors a year, strictly on private funds. There are tons of places that need your end-of-year dollars and the encouragement they bring. How will giving a few dollars to good causes address the wrongness of George W. Bush? It puts our energy on the positive side, the side of hope, and joins forces with others who are passionate but not despairing. “We must cultivate a tender heart,” said Martin Luther King Jr. “In nonviolent resistance we have a way that combines tough-mindedness with soft-heartedness. It avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft-minded, and the bitterness and violence of the hard-hearted.”
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