The parents of a little boy were worried that their son was too optimistic, so they took him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist advised them to test their son by telling him his birthday present was in a room that held a huge pile of horse manure.  When they took him to the room, the parents were shocked to see their son begin digging through the pile of horse dung on his hands and knees.

“What are you doing?” they asked. 

“With all this manure,” their son replied, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”1

 

Most of us in the nonprofit field are the kind of people inclined to look for ponies. But two years after the spectacular failure in the financial markets, it’s getting even more difficult to look on the bright side. 

For people working to improve the life chances of low income people, there is a growing pile of manure stretching for years to come.  Pick your indicator—number of unemployed (5 job seekers for every opening), the estimated 1,000,000 homeless public school students, or drastic cuts to core services (elimination of school days in Hawaii, Utah’s consideration of eliminating 12th grade), to name a few—and there is plenty of evidence of suffering. 

Oddly, the suffering is not as visible as we might expect. We don’t see it the way we did in the Great Depression, with people in tattered clothes standing in breadlines. (A friend recently pointed out that one reason is that we have the safety net programs that grew out of the Depression, and also, food and clothing are much cheaper, relatively, than they were then.)  This Great Recession lacks even the imagery of shuttered steel and auto plants that we saw in the ‘80s. Another thing that’s hard to see is the trillions of dollars in economic and social value that have disappeared.  As University of North Carolina economist Karl Smith observed in a blog post “Rome is Burning”,

“[L]iterally trillions of dollars in value are not being produced. Not misallocated. Not spent on programs you don’t approve of or distributed in tax cuts you don’t like. Trillions of dollars in value are not produced at all. Gone from the world entirely. Never to be had, by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Pure unadulterated loss.”

 

When you think of that loss in terms of foregone opportunities for children to learn or get healthier or for young people to get work experience and a start on a career, it can be pretty depressing. We’re living in the aftermath of massive market failure, yet we don’t seem to have adjusted our ways of thinking, even in the nonprofit field (a topic for another post, one I’ve been avoiding).

But let’s dig anyway. What might we find under all this horse dung?  Will we find a heightened sense of shared fates? Greater commitment to shared sacrifice and contribution for the common good? More support for investment in our people, the one asset that is most likely to resist being shipped or wired abroad? An increasing role for the helping professions in our economy, as I wrote here recently?

One last point about looking for ponies… I was fortunate to speak to a group of USC graduate students about policy advocacy by nonprofits tonight, paired with Angelica Salas, Executive Director of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles (CHIRLA). In talking with her afterwards, we agreed that one thing we wished we had emphasized more to these young people is how important it is to avoid becoming cynical. We can’t stop looking for ponies, we have to continually renew our faith that we can make a difference, and take care to avoid preserve our energy and avoid burnout.  Two perspectives I find helpful personally are:

[…]

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own
Amen
~ Bishop Ken Untener, “Prayer for Archbishop Oscar Romero” [http://bogners.typepad.com/church/2004/03/the_prayer_of_o.html]


“Joy lies in the fight, in the attempt, in the suffering involved, not in the victory itself.” – Mahatma Gandhi

 


1 President Reagan is often credited with popularizing this joke, but growing up, I heard it all the time from my father, well before Reagan was elected. He would usually recite just the punchline, with a chuckle, but he meant it as a parable for life.

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