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Convenience, Spheres, and the Problem With Movements - Part 2

Lord, allow me to be inconvenienced today. And when I am, give me the courage and desire to roll the stone away.

Thanks for returning for Part 2 of my musings on our proclivity for convenience seeking and what that means vis-a-vis the way we order our lives. I want to note a few things upfront. 1) I’m going to spend a considerable amount of time referencing subsidiarity. Know that I’m no expert. As much as anything, my writings are a way for me to reconcile a diversity of personal thoughts into a cogent narrative. If you possess a better understanding, please share! 2) I’ve come across a trove of quality essays recently that influence this article, the links to which I am including at the end of this post. Admittedly, these folks are MUCH smarter than me. I hope what I’ve knitted together here does their work justice. 3) We’re all aware of the righteous polarization that exists in society today. Loads have been written about it, including in some of the excellent pieces I just mentioned. I’m, therefore, not going to address the topic too deeply here.

Allow me to reestablish a few central points from my previous post. I believe most of us strive to be good people. We also, however, strive for weightlessness: to experience the least physical, cognitive, and emotional friction possible. We want well-packaged lives. What trips us up is the inconvenient complexity of the situations that warrant our goodness to be activated. We look to manage these situations as neatly as possible. Thus, 90% of the time, we follow the crowd. Once we start walking in a particular direction, confirmation bias often kicks in, validating our choice and fixing us to a path from which it will be difficult to deviate. Other choices reflexively follow based on the success of the first, allowing us to “do good” while keeping humanity’s messiness at a distance. In this way, all of us are equally good - the furthest left-leaning to the furthest right, the most religious to the least, the richest to the poorest - yet few of us are finding meaning and joy in our goodness. We’re not letting the light in.

With that as a backdrop, let me briefly introduce one of the most powerful principles of Catholic Social Teaching, subsidiarity, which provides order and preference to the way we problem-solve and attend to the common good. It states that a matter “ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized competent authority” (1) capable of addressing that matter effectively. “Larger institutions in society should not overwhelm or interfere with smaller or local institutions, yet larger institutions have essential responsibilities when the more local institutions cannot adequately protect human dignity, meet human needs and advance the common good.” (2) In this way, subsidiarity starts by recognizing the dignity, freedom, capacity, AND responsibility of the individual and radiates outward. It goes something like this.

  • That which I can do alone, I do.

  • That which I can’t do alone, I call on family, friends, and neighbors. (Examples: Caring for an elderly parent. Planting a community garden.)

  • That which we can’t accomplish together, we turn to local organizations like churches, associations, non-profits, and businesses. (Examples: Caring for the homeless. Programming for at-risk youth. Little League.)

  • Larger issues still require the unique characteristics of centralized bodies/governments - local, regional, and federal. (Examples: Trash collection. Organ donation registries. National security.)

What makes subsidiarity so powerful? Whenever possible, it defers to those who have the greatest capacity for understanding the relevant human condition to act. Subsidiarity begins with encounter. A need presents itself and people of good will attempt to address it. Relationships are the engine and trust lubricates the pistons. Larger issues require more people and greater coordination, but the objective remains consistent, to serve and to care.

This sounds pretty satisfying, right? The problem, though, is that subsidiarity can be messy. People have different agendas and opinions. It’s often inconvenient too. Even the simplest issues don’t occur on a predefined schedule. Additionally, in today's world, when it comes to dealing with problems, “There’s an app for that.” At the end of the day, it would be easier to just let the technocrats handle it.

In the name of convenience and weightlessness, we address (notice I didn’t say solve) most problems today by moving up the rungs of subsidiarity toward the large rather than down the rungs toward the small. Let’s look at a simple example involving the fictitious Mr. Jones who needs a ride to a doctor’s appointment. Mr. Jones is your neighbor so you coordinate and pay for an Uber to get him to and from the appointment. You even double-check the app the morning of to make sure all of the details are correct to ensure that he isn’t late. Mr. Jones is really grateful for your help, but he’s quite nervous about the appointment as he’s not been feeling too well lately. Unfortunately, his suspicions prove correct; the doctor provides bad news. After the appointment, the Uber driver takes Mr. Jones home where he sits, alone, scared, and uncertain as to what to do next.

You did a very good deed. Mr. Jones’ need for a ride was met. However, his messier unstated need for companionship remained. Perhaps with the stone rolled away and light shining into our hearts, we’d have sized up the situation a bit differently.

I see a similar problem with movements and issues-based activism today. Both sides of an issue stake their position and then provide oversimplified testimonials of individuals who have been harmed by the actions or inactions of those on the other side. The more sensational the injustice the better. Oftentimes, we’ve not had a personal encounter with the named injustice, but due to previous experiences and choices, what’s being presented seems worthy of our ire. We click a button to “get involved”, essentially hitching our wagon to a cause that takes us where it wants us to go - truth be damned. Weightlessness wins again.

So does subsidiarity have a place in our modern world of convenience? Leave it to a project of Omaha’s Catholic schools to remind me that it does. For more than 50 years Operation Others has been providing meals to needy families around the Holidays. LOTS of meals (1,000,000+) to LOTS of families (5,000+) each year. Though there are a set of adult moderators, Operation Others is almost entirely student-led. It would be a business consultant’s worst nightmare. Disorganization abounds, the warehouse used for distribution changes regularly, and nobody has any idea how many people are going to show up on delivery day to take meals to the homes of those in need. Yet, somehow, it always gets done.

I used to particularly enjoy packaging day, standing side-by-side with students and other adults putting potatoes and cans of green beans into boxes. Tasks often felt duplicative and decisions were being made on the fly. Yet, in spite of all of the frustrating inefficiency, there was a sense of shared purpose and energy that grounded me. I was where I belonged at that moment. When I was done with one task, I’d simply ask a student what he/she would like me to do next. I relished it in part because of the mess. I was being inconvenienced and loving it! Most everyone present had rolled their stones away. Light flooded in. Joy permeated.

What if it were possible to find that every day? I’m not naive enough to think our biggest problems can be overcome with a simple attitude adjustment, but I wonder what would happen if we allowed ourselves to be inconvenienced a little more.

Now for those articles…

(1) Daly, Lew (2010-01-08). "God's Economy". The Financial Times. Retrieved 2010-01-25.


CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman, AVLI President

vol 4 issue 10


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