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On the Care and Feeding of Power

We must remain conscientious stewards as we tend the landscape of our society.


I bought my first house when I was 51 years old. Up until that time, I was always an apartment dweller. Long after the transaction, I remained in awe of what I’d done. For along with the responsibilities of home ownership came a strange and unsettling sense of power.

I owned everything on that .27-acre property, including a beautiful Japanese cherry tree (above) that blossomed in early spring. For three weeks it produced a gorgeous riot of pink flowers that gradually floated to the ground to be replaced by new leaves. And even in this stage, their dots of color created a beautiful pointillistic scape on the lawn. I was in Impressionistic heaven.

I don’t know how old that tree was, but it certainly had experienced years of life before I ever arrived on its scene. Someone else had nurtured it as a sapling and pruned, watered, and protected it. And it now dawned on me that at a moment’s notice and with one mindless or arrogantly selfish stroke of a chainsaw, I could cut down that wondrous growth. That sense of power humbled me. It scared me, too, not because I would ever consider ending the life of that amazing bit of nature, but rather because I was aware that any other homeowner in a similar situation might choose to do so.

Like many other Americans, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of power, about what it can do for us –– and to us. I’ve been pondering the longstanding cultural values we Americans have cherished and innovative social programs we have established –– values and programs that are now quite vulnerable to a sinister collective will and could be cut down or uprooted at any time, should we decide to take such actions.

And I’m humbled and scared, too, by the dangerous talk that is getting louder about privatizing Medicare, defunding Medicaid, repealing the Affordable Care Act, and cutting benefits to Social Security. Before we take a chainsaw to any policies and programs that have a track record of securing the greater good for our fellow citizens, we must stop and decide which efforts we want to maintain and which we conclude are necessary to destroy. After all, it’s impossible to resurrect a sawed-off tree. At best, it can take years for new shoots to sprout from the remaining stump and reach full growth. And uprooted trees can require lots of stabilizing support and still be too shocked to thrive after any efforts to replant them.

Just because we have the power to do something drastic doesn’t mean that we should use that power. Instead of handing over a program to be administered solely by for-profit companies or disenfranchising entire groups of people who desperately rely on supportive services, let’s explore making moderate adjustments and improvements that won’t throw our social ecosystem into chaos. In other words, let’s consider any changes to these programs as efforts to prune unruly branches and fertilize slowly depleting soil rather than adapt policies that promote full-scale deforestation.

And much more importantly, let’s use greater discretion and self-control as we care for and feed our own impulses to power. Let’s trim back our partisan tendencies and nourish our sense of compassion. For once we destroy our will and ability to act responsibly toward our fellow Americans, it will take many years indeed to reestablish our roots as mature, competent citizens.

We must remain conscientious stewards as we tend the landscape of our society. We have no other choice, if we are to survive –– let alone flourish –– as a nation.


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