Torn this way and that by countless existential challenges, our philanthropy is pulled in numerous directions, resembling the “unsettled minds” of Americans today.
In one of his epistles, the great Roman poet Horace lamented the unsettled state of his own mind:
But when I don’t know what my own mind is,
Hating the thing I just now loved, and wanting
The thing I just rejected scornfully,
Judgment seething and boiling, the order of things
All out of order, pulled down, built up again,
Pulled down, built up, round turned to square, and square
To round again […]
It requires no great leap to conclude humans have not much improved our aptitude for concentration and constancy in the millennia since Horace wrote those lines. If anything, we’ve gotten worse. “Hating the thing I just now loved” is the standard formula for a sizable percentage of internet takes. Social media are designed to set our judgement seething and boiling.
Horace seems to be getting at several deficiencies: a lack of resolution, a lack of purpose, a lack of conviction. He foreshadows Walker Percy’s description of the self in the 20th century as a “voracious naught,” a “vacancy” that seeks out and then discards the latest fashions and ideas once it has used them up.
One difference between Americans today and the Romans of Horace’s day is that we have considerably more disposable income. And every year, most of us give at least some of that income to charity, as do countless corporations and foundations. Which means the practice of giving away money in this country often reflects our distractible, fickle, and de-centered selves.
As our judgment seethes and boils, it is easy to believe that each crisis of the moment ought to consume all of our time, attention and, by extension, our philanthropy. Climate change? It is the “defining challenge” of our time, an existential threat. Income inequality? It is also the “defining challenge” of our time, also an existential threat. Similar things have been said in the last few years about political polarization, immigration, the opioid crisis, racial inequality, and other pressing matters.
To be sure, these are all important problems that merit consideration and action. But when we are coached to respond to every challenge with outrage and despair, and to reorient ourselves in light of every new “crisis,” we find ourselves “out of order, pulled down, built up again, pulled down, built up.”
Foundations large and small constantly add new funds and initiatives to combat whatever social challenge is most in the public eye. Donations to nonprofits wax and wane as the public vacantly scrolls through its newsfeed and encounters decontextualized images of suffering and injustice. And the focus and activities of nonprofits are often blown about by cultural winds, as they seek to capitalize on the passions of the moment.
It’s certainly not wrong for organizations to evolve in the face of emerging challenges. After all, many institutions in our society seemed plagued by the opposite problem: a kind of sclerosis, an inability to respond to even small moments of consequence (here’s looking at you, Congress). So adaptability or, to use the term du jour, nimbleness, can be a valuable trait, both for the long-term viability of the organization and for the good of society.
But what if, as Horace seems to suggest, what we call “nimbleness” is just a way of describing someone who turns circles into squares and then back into circles, someone who gives the appearance of progress without any of its substance? If a change in focus is not the result of deliberation, it can only be the symptom of a more fundamental unsettledness.
Baylor English professor Alan Jacobs recently called attention to the way we collectively seem to lurch from one topic of concern to another:
Human beings have overwhelmingly powerful cravings for novelty and unanimity. We want new problems to face, because we’re tired of the old ones: they bore us, and remind us of our failures to solve them. And, especially in times of stress, we crave environments in which dissent is silenced and even mere difference is erased. We call that “solidarity,” but it‘s more like an instinctual bullying. You must attend to the thing I am attending to. I despise both of those tendencies. They’ve turned everyone into attention muggers.
Samuel Johnson once said, “To have management of the mind is a great art.” There is virtue in maintaining focus, both as a thinker and as a giver. After all, no difficult problem was ever resolved because a lot of people cared loudly about it for a brief time. The most significant achievements are the result of devotion, which is characterized by steadiness in the face of other important matters calling for attention.
Heading off the latest existential crisis is a big goal. There are worse places to start than by cultivating a satisfied mind.