My days as a columnist are drawing to a close.
Soon, this string of weekly submissions will come to an end, and I will have to amuse myself elsewhere. It has been a gratifying experience to compose new pieces all of the time and practice the craft. And you…I couldn’t have done it without you.
The original premise was that I address local public questions, for the good and welfare of the community served by this newspaper, although I was granted considerable freedom what to say. Occasionally, I tackled larger trends. Occasionally, I used this space to vent against the culture. There was also the time I tried my hand at serial fiction.
If I were to encapsulate years of opinions, identifying my core message, it wouldn’t be according to my religious faith or my political persuasion. These things informed my deliberations, of course, but the abiding lesson – if I were being urged to reduce it all to one statement – is that our times require an agility to preserve what is best while at the same time risking innovation.
A controversial French writer interrupted his career in the early 1980’s to find out what Greek and Roman pagans were teaching prospective leaders, because he was exceedingly discouraged by the world as he knew it. Because he was a teacher, he wanted to go back to antiquity for wisdom. What did he find?
For centuries, teachers urged young people to follow the ancient practices that still make sense today: study hard, exercise regularly, and acknowledge the gods. But that had been the case going back to the Stone Age. What the Greeks and Romans added was that a leader must always hear the truth, about himself (or herself) and about the community to be led.
This Frenchman then made the next logical connection. If we live in a democracy, he said, then we all need to hear the truth. We cannot ignore it or wish it away or accept the easiest version to believe. The truth might be a stern taskmaster, though it is also a formidable ally. We have to be open to hearing it, even if that means entertaining new ideas or confronting uncomfortable facts.
One of the ways we have adopted to circulate the truth and test it against the perception of others is through a free press, in which facts of every kind accumulate regularly and new ideas struggle daily – leaving it to the reader to judge. It may not be pretty. But leadership demands no less.
In my profession, I try to prepare students for this exchange, so they are critical consumers of the truth and ultimately producers. We aspire as citizens to tolerate a range of ideas, even crazy ones, and then use logic to sort through the possibilities. What’s really going on? What seems to be working? What should we try to become?
Just as a young person must take a conflicted, incomplete character (just picture any typical teenager) and try to find a unifying purpose, for the sake of living a life of meaning, so also a community like Decatur County must take a conflicted, incomplete mélange of people, places, businesses, and resources and try to find its unifying purpose.
To quote a wise woman named Mary Parker Follett, community is actually a process. It’s a never-ending enterprise, assimilating new members and adapting to changing conditions, without losing one’s soul. Say what you will, there is nothing closer to sharing in the creative power of the divine than building, sustaining, and improving one’s community.
I make it sound pretentious. Still, this conviction was what returned me again and again to the keyboard, making what little contribution I could to the circulation of truth, because I trust the leaders who have read me all these years to know what to do with it.
Soon, in the natural rhythm of things, the next generation assumes responsibility. If I have done my job well as a teacher (and as a father), your leaders there will continue to practice community. I have moved away. You need people closer to the situation to have their say. I trust you to hear them. My voice is now meant for different audiences and different songs. May the editors grant me a few more weeks, and then good-bye.