A Modest Proposal
Listen to “A Modest Proposal” by Fred Smith
Jonathan Swift’s satirical response to the plight of the Irish people after decades of poverty and abuse shocked the sensibilities of the 18th century. His solution in “A Modest Proposal” to the problem of children begging and starving was obvious and simple: Eat them.
“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.”
Even as satire, how could anyone propose such a thing?
Recently, Richard R. Reno in First Times received a similar but milder response when he argued that our country may be taking a blow from the shutdown that will put our economic, political and social systems at risk. Should we really be saving lives at any cost? Should we not expect and accept the loss of life as part of the inevitable consequences of such periodic outbreaks? Is the cure likely to be worse than the disease?
“Others speak as if triage signals moral failure. This is false. We are always doing triage. Only the great wealth of our society allows us to pretend otherwise…Our finitude always requires the hard moral labor of triage. That demand is now more visible, because the potent virus puts great pressure on our immune systems and healthcare systems. But it is always there.”
While Reno accepts the sacrifice of individual lives, I am thinking a conversation about the effects of the pandemic on non-profits and ministries dependent on generosity and a strong economy is more urgent now than before.
Warren Buffett said, “When the tide goes out, you discover who has been swimming naked.” Does that describe organizations that are operating on a very thin margin? Will they be able to find enough support to survive? Should they? Can we accept the death of non-profits as part of the natural consequences of such a global disruption?
Some having adequate fund balances will weather the storm. Others, while having committed leadership and doing work that is needed, will not. Many will have what epidemiologists now call “pre-existing conditions” making them more susceptible to the life-threatening changes forced on them by a virus. With no net they will be tipped into failure through loss of staff and volunteers as donations evaporate. All of the organizations we support will have challenges in the short term and few of us are prepared to make the difficult decisions required by triage. Yes, non-profits can lose their vitality over the years but sometimes even the best are simply swept away as collateral damage. They are casualties of circumstances. We are all, donors and ministries alike, in for a new set of painful decisions. How will we decide? We can save some but not all.
A sign hangs over my desk that reads, “When The Horse Is Dead Dismount.” It is true but what if we had a way giving an organization dignity while going through the final stages of dissolution – sometimes through no fault of its own? What if we had, for lack of a better word, a hospice that would provide comfort for a dying organization? What if, instead of desperate measures meant to grasp a few last painful days, we offered care instead of criticism? What if, instead of a painful wasting away, we had a process for closing that gave everyone permission to let go? What if, instead of looking for someone or circumstances to blame, we accepted this as part of life? It’s not fatalism or giving up. It is allowing an organization to have a legacy not marred by a few final days of turmoil and even recrimination.
Atul Gawande wrote about the slow death of his father in, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.” I think the lesson is the same for organizations and those of us who have been part of them:
“Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can’t, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end.”
I think we need to begin preparing ourselves as well as mortally wounded organizations for turning loose gracefully and with dignity for all.
Art: “The Swinford Funeral” by Jack Yeats
You can purchase “Where The Light Divides” here.