Over the last fortnight, I’ve been taking some refuge in Aaron Sorkin’s early 2000s television series The West Wing.
It’s one of the few shows I ever watched live before getting rid of my TV altogether, and it brims with optimism about governance, civic service, and the people who work in the public sector. It exposes the negotiations that mark relationships between the branches of the US government, between executive agencies, between the Cabinet and the Office of the President, and between the government and the public via the press.
And it’s also dialogue-dense, which lends its characters to share parables like this over soundtracks of sober orchestral music:
You remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town, and that the all the residents should evacuate their homes.
But the man said, ‘I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.’
The waters rose up. A guy in a rowboat came along and he shouted, ‘Hey, hey you, you in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.’
But the man shouted back, ‘I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.’
A helicopter was hovering overhead and a guy with a megaphone shouted, ‘Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.’
But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety.
Well… the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter he demanded an audience with God.
‘Lord,’ he said, ‘I’m a religious man, I pray, I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?’
God said, ‘I sent you a radio report, a helicopter and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?'” —Father Thomas Cavanaugh
This is a story worthy of sermons and email forwards circa 1999. I love it anyway.
Some of my most strongest revelations have come through my relationships with other people. And as hard as I’ve worked in my jobs, these relationships are also where I’ve done my hardest work.
Our relationships, the people we touch, and the experiences we have with them are where abstractions squeeze into reality. Fair wage chants become determining the hourly rate for an intern. Ideas about gender equality become how I interact with everybody, the expectations I have for how we communicate, who I think should assert themselves and how I judge them as they do.
In the end, the bigger work might not be nudging the big boat of society in new directions, though of course we have to do that; the scale of issues like climate change is too large not to do it.
The bigger work might be dismantling social structures at work in us and expressing in our personal lives and our interactions with other people. It might be learning to recognize God in the radio report, the helicopter, and the guy in the rowboat, and changing our reflex to de-prioritize them all.