Reality Check

Reality Check

I live a sheltered life. My work as a college president relies on the splendid efforts of others who are constantly anticipating, preparing, advising, researching, organizing and arranging many aspects of my personal and professional life. It’s a wonderful privilege for which I am very grateful, but sometimes it’s also a mixed blessing. I find it’s easy to lose perspective. Sometimes things magically appear as other things mercifully disappear. People always seem interested in what I have to say. I also receive invitations to visit very new places and meet fascinating people. I could get used to this.

Inevitably the reality check comes when people like me step outside the bubble — the carefully ordered world in which we live. Air travel is one of the best reality check experiences I have available. Despite the privileges associated with frequent airline travel, there are times when the pedestal is pulled away and we land right where we belong. Earlier this spring we were on a return trip to Iowa from New York, with a stop in Minneapolis. A tight connection, coupled with a vast distance between gates, left us sprinting the entire length of the airport; a feat we had to accomplish in about 20 minutes. We were quite a sight. I was running ahead pulling my carry-on bag with wheels smoking, Tammy was digging for her inhaler while balancing on heels, and Greta was weighed down with a collection of items that made her look more like a Sherpa than an airline passenger. There are the inevitable stares from those who are curious or sympathetic, but the momentary embarrassment evaporates quickly. After all, we were just another anonymous family in the crowd trying to catch a flight.

It’s at moments like these that I would like to rewrite Psalm 23. I think it should read, “The Lord is my shepherd, don’t I get what I want?” Here is what I want.

I want…

…to stroll casually to my flight with dignity.

…to board first so that I can store my carry-on items easily.

…to pay $200 for my flight, sit in first class and have lots of leg room.

…“on-time” to be measured from the moment the wheels leave the ground, to the instant I step into the arriving gate area at my destination.

Is that too much to ask? I think I am entitled to have what I want. Don’t you? And, by the way, I want it now.

If my experience is at all common, we are now living in a culture of entitlement that is overwhelming a culture of contentment. The Psalm 23 I read in the Hebrew Scriptures says, “…I shall not want.” I have seen this sometimes paraphrased as “…I have everything I need.” I recognize my appetite for entitlement and privilege is driven by a self-interest that is as old as human history. As families, groups, communities, organizations, and governments weaken, we see a pattern where the common good is gradually supplanted by individual interest. For most of my life I have seen many examples of individuals and groups deciding to accept an inconvenience or imposition for the greater good. This has been one of the greatest strengths of American society. I see less of this today. As a society we seem more reluctant to set aside our immediate demands for satisfaction in exchange for a deferred benefit that will serve others, or more importantly, serve those who are not here yet.

I often remind the members of our leadership at the college that “we work for our successors.”  This gentle reminder calls us to make decisions in service of the long-term interest of our academic community. When we do this, the choices we make about new opportunities and challenges need to be seen over a longer time horizon. There are times when we need to be courageous and make a choice that will take a long time to reach maturity. There are other occasions when moving quickly is necessary as an opportunity surfaces. What guides us is the determination that over time we make the institution stronger and more sustainable. Periodically, this will involve decisions that are not immediately satisfying.

I think we should be concerned about the strength of our resolve as a human community to secure the futures of societies around the world. The past three years have ushered in a period of uncertainty in global financial markets and a scarcity of resources, which is eroding a value for the common good in relationship to individual interest. The streets of the world are filled with protests in response to political oppression and claims of inequality. Governments are failing as collective human energy is standing up to authoritarian rule and military power. Fiscal deficits and sovereign debt are resulting in austerity measures and budget reductions tearing at the fabric of civil society.

Maybe it’s time to change my list of wants. I want…

…families, groups, communities, governments and an environment that can be sustained for those who are not here yet.

…everyone to save and invest more even if that means depriving ourselves now and passing on something worthwhile for the next generation.

…our emerging generation of leaders to think deeply and broadly about the common good and determine to work for their successors.

…us to learn to sacrifice our personal interests now for the benefit of a society that is in desperate need of renewal.

I think this may take some time, but I have great confidence in the coming generation. For now, I’ll just wait patiently in line with everyone else and hope to catch the next flight.

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11 responses to “Reality Check”

  1. Trish (Smith) Merz says:

    Two thumbs up!

    I enjoys your writings and share many of your thoughts regarding our ability to discern needs vs wants! I’m a single mother raising 4 children – my oldest will be attending St James Academy in Shawnee, KS(private Catholic high school) as a freshman – we have many talks regarding the “price we pay” and the (in)ability to put a value on “material items” – but in life, we must constantly add the value and our rewards will be plentiful! I’m in technology sales and have traveled much of my professional life – I understand all too much the rushing to catch a flight – more often than not, just trying to get home earlier to my kids/family. Have a great summer! Trish

    • Stuart Blauw '51 says:

      I am an old timer, having grduated in ’51. I am a retired RCA minister and have lived in Michigan, Minnesota and Ill.We now live in a senior community run by the Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids. Reading your columns has made me proud to say, “I graduated from that college where you are the “Prexy.” Continue the good work.
      Stu Blauw, sblauw@porterhillscommunity.org

  2. James Hekel says:

    I’m sorry you missed your flight…

    but you know,

    I think we Americans do have a very high tolerance for injustice, historically. We simply do not see it. Not when it is all around us in the poverty and hunger here at home and certainly not when it if half a world away in a protest in the street.

    We do not see the cost of our continued support of “stability” in a region of the world where petroleum is found and refined into kerosene for our jets.

    A veil covers our hearts. We cling to the old order where we can get what we want for cheap.

    But alas, $200 flights are not worth cost to our successors. There is not enough left for the seventh generation. Things must change.

    When the veil be lifted?

    • dr. mark
      what a timely commentary.

      my institution needs to find 1/2 a million dollars to cut from our budget.

      how do we reconcile needs and wants?

      how does my public institution balance our constituants wants ( or in a depressed economy, wants) and the legistlators requirements (with the public, isn’t it always about $?)–esp. when they are both our future and our successors?

      how long do we have to wait for the balance that whillhite suggests? especially when the need for an educated workforce is a ‘now’ and the future is also a “now?”

      your public and private insight woudl be most helpful for those of us on the edge.

      you know where to find me. klr-j

  3. Thank you for a new quote to use with my staff . . . “We work for our Successors.”
    As a public school adminstrator I am constantly trying to seperate the needs from the wants. This viewpoint will remind us all of the greater good and the impact what we do today will have on future opportunitites.
    Wouldn’t it be great if both sides of Iowa’s and the Nation’s political leadership should step back and reflect in this manner for fiscal and societal needs of our successors.
    Have a great day.

  4. Carol Geil says:

    I also hope our political leaders will come to the realization that we must put our financial matters in order, and everyone must be willing to compromise something to make that happen. But beyond the political leaders, the citizens and voters need to demand it, because ultimately political office is a reward-based system: I like what you do (or promise to do), so I vote for you. This has resulted in a short-term, scratch-my-back voter mentality. We support the politician who gives us the candy we like. If we as voters (and as members of other organizations) start thinking and behaving in the interest of long-term stability and put short-term personal wants aside, then our candidates and elected officials will finally begin to serve that mission. But only if they are confident we’ll reward them for doing so. We’re definitely not there yet. Imagine JFK issuing his “ask not” challenge today! For those of us who believe in it, we must begin by talking to the people around us.

  5. Retired faculty member says:

    Welcome to the thundering herd who have raced with family and luggage trying to reach that seemingly always distant gate to board our flight to anywhere! That’s a wonderful metaphoric experience to realize you’ve “stepped outside the bubble.”
    Unfortunately, we’ve often fanned the flames of “earned privileges” in our society by assuring students, colleagues or work associates that a concerted effort now will assure them of a place in the comfy culture of entitlement. It’s all too easy to ask, “what did the future ever do for me?” when expected to work for our successors, save and invest more, and work for the common good.
    Most of us are a part of society that probably does think of and serve the common good, and accepts sacrifice of personal interests for the good of the whole. Still it’s a temptation to stay within that bubble of a carefully ordered world, and to ask, “When is it my turn to get what I want, and not just what I need.”

  6. 2011 Graduate says:

    I had a professor at Central talk about raising kids and how we raise our kids to be independent, but shouldn’t we raise our kids to be dependable. This idea would seem to take the focus off them and show them they are part of a bigger picture. I have four children and this thought/challenge has changed my view in the role I play as a parent.

  7. Paul Janssen '81 says:

    Dr. Putnam,
    Amen!
    Students will need to learn, hence the faculty will have to teach, how to critically evaluate Ayn Rand, whose “atlas Shrugged” is only outsold by the Bible. The first principles of her philosophy stand in perfect counterpoint to yours….and hers are the principles on which current policymakers ( both left and right) rely. A subject for a faculty retreat? Or for a series of conversations with students? Your reflection on successors is a strong reply to gordon gekko’s “greed is good.”

    • David says:

      Paul, you are right on the money. Ayn Rand had it down pat – and we now realize how correct she was. I disagree with the prexy as you do. I am an old timer and absolutely abhor those who think the world owes me a living – rely on help for everything. I grew up with nothing and have worked hard for everything I have. If everyone put themselves on notice that I have to provide for “me” the world will be a better place.

  8. Broke Central Student says:

    Air condition in all the dorm buildings would be enrolled student’s money well spent.