Monday, November 10, 2008
The challenge of prevention
Recently at the William Penn House, we held a workcamp for two Quaker schools - one is a prep/boarding school, the other an alternative high school. One of our reasons for this work is to promote the idea that when we can identify common threads among us we can build community partnerships and friendships to help make the world a better, more peaceful place while working together for the common good. With these two groups, "Quakerism" was the common thread, but what emerged was another common thread which really is a common challenge to our society, perhaps even our species, as we face challenging times. Briefly, what emerged after the groups participated in three very different kinds of service work, was that when the work had no immediate gratification, the students not only did not enjoy the work, but even questioned the validity of the work. In this case, it was pulling invasive plants from the banks of a water tributary (note that there is a difference between weeds and invasive plants; weeds can be natural to an environment whereas invasive plants are brought in by humans, and often can completely kill the eco-system by choking everything else out). Despite the fact that environmentalists everywhere are calling for this kind of work, the kids were skeptical. I have seen the same mechanism in operation with HIV/AIDS work. People are more than kind, caring and generous when someone is suffering, but often when you ask these same people to get tested for HIV, the answer is "no", despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control is encouraging this, and the fact that the only we will really stop the spread of HIV is when everyone is diagnosed - not as having HIV, but as confirming their own status as "positive" or "negative" (plus, doing this helps to change the stigma of who "should" get tested, and becomes an opportunity for education). I have often talked about this work as "transformative" vs. "transactional", and perhaps another way to look at it is when we get the immediate gratification of our work, both giver and receiver may be better at least in the short term, but when the gratification is not so clear, we are all better off in the long term. And here's the real kicker: often with immediate gratification, we need someone to be suffering, only a few can respond and it often takes resources. With the other kind of actions, all people can do things (get tested, pick up litter, remove invasive plants), we are trying to prevent harm and suffering, and it costs little to nothing. How can we learn to really value this and transform our society?