To Serve or to Build, That is the Question
Sometimes in life, the true test of intelligence; the real measure of leadership are not functions of the answers one provides, but the questions one asks. This is especially true when said questions are the right inquiries raised at the right time.
Such was the case with the opening lines of Shakespeare’s soliloquy in the play Hamlet:
“To be or not to be, that is the question
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep…”
This is more that an incredible piece of writing, one rarely if ever equaled. Rather, it asks the most fundamental question of life. When faced with troubles, when confronted by the vicissitudes and injustices of life, should one battle to survive or just lie down and die?
The question of our time may well be what is the best way to help people, to serve them or to build them? For the sake of clarity, to serve someone is to provide for their needs; to give them what they request, want or require. To build someone is to enhance their knowledge, skills and attitude so that they become self sufficient.
This is no esoteric question. There are far too many who are either unable or unwilling to fend for themselves. And they are raising children who like them will suffer a lifetime of dependency. To date, what we have been doing simply isn’t working. The question therefore goes to the heart of our society.
The issue came into focus one day when I came upon a young lady in obvious distress. Facing imminent eviction and the real prospect of homelessness, she was inconsolable, sobbing as if her world were about to end. Having just filed a request for rent support with social services, she wanted money, cold hard cash by which to pay her rent. For her nothing less would do.
Needles to say, I have no desire to see anyone without a place to live. The woman in question may well have young children who also faced the prospect of a roofless existence. We are indeed our brother’s keepers and at some point we all need help. The parable of “Plato’s Cave” teaches that those who are blessed are morally obliged to help those who are not, even at the costs of one’s own well being.
Nonetheless, the fundamental public policy question remains. What is the best way to help people, to serve them or to build them? Even if the woman in question received the money she requested, even if she were served precisely as she desired, what is the probability that she will need rent money the next month, the month after that and the month after that? If we feed the hungry have we really changed anything? Are they not famished four hours later? At some point we cannot help but run out of food. Then what?
While addressing an immediate need is noble, are we not compelled to aid our fellow man in a manner that creates lasting change for the better? If we serve, rather than build, do we not merely justify our continued relevance, our prolonged existence by creating a class of people dependent on our goodwill?
The predictable answer to this dilemma is to both serve and to build people as these options are not mutually exclusive. The problem is that we don’t do both. We merely serve in part because building people is the much more difficult task. Our instinct is to therefore serve people, to give to or to comfort the needy. Thus, even if we mean well, even though our intentions may be pure, we become stuck on serving, seldom if ever arriving at the building part of the equation.
Perchance, we can overcome this tendency by thinking of social benevolence not as an act of charity, but as an investment in our community, our nation, our world? As in any investment the central questions are these. First, is this a good investment? Stated differently, what is the probability of receiving a return on the investment? Second, what is the likely rate of return on said investment? And finally, is this the highest and best use of our limited resources?
Blackacre is persuaded that the highest and best use of our limited resources is to educate, teach, train and enlighten people. Nourishing the minds of the downtrodden with knowledge, information, facts and useful data is just as important if not more so than filling their stomachs with food. The requirement of continuous learning is or should be non-negotiable.
Blackacre is convinced that the best investment is to strengthen and improve a group’s skill sets by providing relevant, comprehensive and on-going technical, vocational, employment, occupational, entrepreneurial, artistic, creative and educational opportunities, whenever and however possible.
Blackacre is satisfied that the greatest rate of return on this investment is achieved by working on the thoughts, attitudes and beliefs of the seemingly helpless. The mission is to enable them to take ownership of their own destiny, to persuade them to bravely face the future rather than fearfully cling to the past. The poor are not helpless victims who are entitled to something but are instead capable and responsible for their own well being. We simply must change the dialogue of the forlorn from I can’t so I won’t to I can so I will.
Ergo, requiring that those who receive a benefit earn or otherwise merit the benefit is sensible public policy. This should not equate to punishment or a sense of being demeaned, a feeling of being bullied. Nevertheless, there is a mutual obligation requiring consideration (a bargained for exchange of value), between the giver and the receiver of a social benefit. If we are required to reach back and help the less fortunate, then the less fortunate are obligated to reach up to be helped. More fundamentally, no matter our station in life, we are all compelled to help ourselves? We have no responsibility to help those who refused to do so.
Finally, comprehensive public policy must include institutional development. Building and supporting institutions such as churches, schools, businesses, neighborhoods and the family, especially the family, is the definitive way of both serving and building people.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO, Blackacre Policy Forum