Thursday, October 16, 2008

On Trust and Dignity

I'm told I should write about poverty tonight. And I'm told to do it in my voice, in my style. So I'll make it up to the minute current with my thoughts and copy a paragraph from East of Eden, my daily inspiration and a book I hope never ends.

It wasn't very long before all the land in the barren hills near King City and San Ardo was taken up, and ragged families were scattered through the hills, trying their best to scratch a living from the thin flinty soil. They and the coyotes lived clever, despairing, submarginal lives. They landed with no money, no equipment, no tools, no credit, and particularly with no knowledge of the new country and no technique for using it. I don't know whether it was a divine stupidity or a great faith that let them do it. Surely such venture is nearly gone from the world. And the families did survive and grow. They had a tool or a weapon that is also nearly gone, or perhaps it is only dormant for a while. It is argued that because they believed thoroughly in a just, moral God they could put their faith there and let the smaller securities take care of themselves. But I think that because they trusted themselves and respected themselves as individuals, because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units - because of this they could give God their own courage and dignity and then receive it back. Such things have disappeared perhaps because men do not trust themselves anymore, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.

Those were late nineteenth century Californians, and no question their world was different from the shanty towns of Rio de Janeiro, the eroding grasslands of northwestern China, or the half drowned back alleys of New Orleans.

But maybe Steinbeck has found a persistent truth. Maybe survival and growth is about finding that rare weapon. Not faith. Not God. But trust. A person's trust in his own potential. Trust in the value of his life and path and future. Trust in the substance of his size and impact in an overwhelmingly vast world.

How to get there, to a world of ubiquitous trust and courage and dignity, I don't think we can ever really know.

But we can trust ourselves. We can keep on working. We can strive for that mysterious and improbable harmony of solutions.

Bill McDonough designing for sustainable abundance. Van Jones and Majora Carter training and empowering the hands that'll build a new American economy. Bill and Melinda Gates curing malaria. Paul Collier spreading credible hope. Vusi Mahlasela singing songs of love.

And every other activist, philanthropist, social entrepreneur, and storyteller, big or small, pushing forward and refusing to accept defeat.