From time to time I happen upon a day relatively free from the immediate expectations of my work and the important interests of my family. My natural tendency on these days is to rise very early. For some that may seem odd since an early morning is usually something we associate with the work day. Yet, I can’t escape the call of my comfortable chair, the stillness of the quiet dawn hours, and the reassurance of my faithful cup of coffee. I set about the task for the morning; one I eagerly await for the pleasure it brings and cannot avoid given the responsibilities I carry. I read…and read…and read. I try to read widely to stay in touch with all that is moving around me, but it never seems to be quite enough.
Today has been such a day. Perusing many articles and reading a few chapters, I find my mind wandering, looking for patterns. There are stories of advances in science and technology that seem more like fiction than reality. I find opinion pieces regarding our nation’s political dynamics recycling the same tired ideologies that dilute meaningful discourse into rhetorical paralysis. There is business news about rebounding financial markets and reinvigorated real estate sales, even as traditional retail establishments search for shoppers and unemployment remains stubbornly high. Religious news speaks of changing times and changing perspectives with a Pope living out a call for justice and mercy in the face of scandal and corruption. Figures of great prominence, profound leadership, and lasting influence pass from the Earth leaving us to interpret a legacy from the past and set a renewed course for the future. Reports of crime, poverty, illness and injury remind us of the fragility of life and the long lasting results that can come from slowly emerging societal decay or a sudden momentary lapse.
There is so much to absorb. I need another cup of coffee. My head is spinning.
In the cinematic version of The Fellowship of the Ring, based on the first book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, we find our hobbit hero, Frodo, in the Mines of Moria with his companions. He is in despair as the journey with the One Ring has already proved to be far more challenging than he ever anticipated. He speaks to the wizard, Gandalf.
Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
For Frodo, the road would grow far more difficult in the weeks and months that would follow.
Though we do not live in Middle Earth, the literary example feels too close, the threat too familiar. We are not suffering under the tyranny of the evil Lord Sauron or bewildered by the betrayal of our once friend and ally, the wizard, Saruman. Yet, we carry the burden of the times we live in and the circumstances set before us. We can only succeed with the help and support of our companions on the journey. Anxiety would seek to overtake us and divide us, but it’s the circle of friendship that must remain unbroken, if the power of the One Ring is to be overcome.
The One Ring today takes shape in the tyranny of abject poverty, which is growing in the U.S. and around the world. Poverty undermines health and well-being, and eventually becomes cancerous eating away at society’s capacity to lift people to a better existence.
The circle extends to ignorance, which is born of inadequate educational opportunity. As learning declines, the framework of society weakens, gradually leading more people to poverty.
The ring is complete with the violence that emerges when poverty and ignorance are combined to breed anger and hatred. Violence further erodes educational opportunity and introduces deeper levels of poverty.
Overtime, the circle is complete and another Ring of Power is forged. The cycle continues. What can we do to break the modern Ring of Power?
First, we must inspire. When we elevate our discourse we make it possible for others to see beyond the tyranny of the urgent. This nation was founded on an inspiration that held high the ideals of freedom and liberty, equality and opportunity. It seems unlikely that our leaders today could reach deep enough to inspire us to a vision for a nation and world they could only imagine. They were far from the reality they could foresee, yet they did not retreat from its pursuit, which they clearly know would exceed all of their lifetimes. We inherit a great legacy of inspiration. Let’s use it wisely.
Second, we need to innovate. Whatever course we choose, it is clear the patterns of the past will not be the patterns of the future. As we hold on tightly to the inspiration we carry, rooted deeply in the values we hold, we must do things differently if we are to bend and eventually break an increasingly dangerous cycle of poverty, ignorance and violence worldwide. It’s not just science and technology, though these offer helpful interventions. Innovation is desperately needed in governance and management, in policy-making and decision-making, and most of all in facilitating civil dialogue among people groups with divergent ideas, yet similar hopes.
Third, we must invest. Scarcity of resources predictably leads to political tensions at all levels – I institutional, municipal, regional, national and international. If we can inspire and we can innovate, then we can work together in making investments in the future that can break the Ring of Power for our generation. It takes immense cooperation to invest well. Our anticipated return on investment must take on an intergenerational quality, where we care more about those who are not born yet more than we care about ourselves.
Our inheritance comes from those who expressed some pretty lofty ideas to inspire us. They presented us with a framework that would enable us to innovate. And they provided clarity on what our investments should achieve. They thought about us. They called us their “posterity.” The use of that word meant they knew they were leaving something important behind. We will too. What we leave depends entirely on what we do with “the time that is given to us.” Let’s band together and make some great choices for our posterity. They deserve it.
About the Author
I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.