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.
…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.