The invoice for my spring Rotary club dues just arrived, which got me thinking about how odd it sometimes seems to me to be a Rotary member and how much I’ve come to enjoy and value my rotary membership. In case you are unfamiliar, Rotary is an international service organization made up of business and professional leaders who work on projects ranging from worldwide eradication of polio to providing backpacks for disadvantaged schoolchildren in the local community.
I sometimes see myself as a very unlikely Rotary club member, but that’s only when I allow my own preconceived ideas about people to influence my thoughts. Like many people, I get caught upon labels and reduce people to a single dimension. I see myself as a Jewish lefty consumer rights lawyer who comes from a working-class background. My earnings are often at the lowest end of the lawyer pay scale and I’m relatively unknown in the larger legal community. By contrast, many of my fellow Rotarians are quite accomplished and well known in their respective fields. In the legal profession, several come from leading law firms, have high level government jobs, or are sitting judges. We have a retired Air Force general and a Navy admiral. We also have members who are prominent business people who lead major institutions such as hospitals and universities. Some come from privileged backgrounds and were born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouths while others, like me, come from very modest or even poor backgrounds. Politically, my fellow Rotarians span the gambit of persuasions from hard-core conservatives to lefty activists who make me look moderate.
Historically, Rotary clubs were male only and often segregated (Rotary has been open to all races since its earliest days, but some clubs were segregated at the local level). However, my club is diverse in terms of both gender and ethnicity. Sure, it’s Tallahassee, and mine is the oldest club in the city, so we’ve got an abundance of the white male old guard members, but I’ve found that whatever history may have existed, the club has evolved and grown into a very tolerant and diverse group of men and women who seek to have a positive impact upon the world and find fellowship within our club.
I’ve really come to appreciate and enjoy being a part of an organization made up of so many people who really do represent “the establishment” despite the fact that I see myself as an anti-establishment sort. It sometimes seems humorous to me that I’m a guy who sues banks and credit unions and I’m in a club with the people who run banks and credit unions. However, this is where I can see the true value of my Rotary membership.
In Rotary, I have the opportunity to see multiple dimensions of people whom I often have a tendency to view as one-dimensional. It’s very easy for me to view people of wealth and privilege through a very narrow lens. A one-dimensional perspective of any human being isn’t accurate, and it deprives all involved of the opportunity to find connection. Through my Rotary experiences I’ve learned that no matter the differences in our backgrounds, there is always common ground that is much larger than whatever distinguishes us. Such a view is at the very foundation of Rotary. Consider this quote from Rotary founder, Paul Harris, published in Rotary magazine nearly 80 years ago:
“Man has afﬁnity for his fellowman, regardless of race, creed, or politics, and the greater the variety, the more the zest. All friendliness needs is a sporting chance; it will take care of itself in any company.” — A Road I Have Travelled, THE ROTARIAN, February 1934.
It often occurs to me when I read the news, or watch the media report on some individual in the news, that we live in a world that so often reduces human beings to one-dimensional characters. For example, how many of us see Paris Hilton as anything more than a spoiled heiress, or Glen Beck as more than a right-wing propagandist? Do you love or hate the President? Either way, do you see him as having the same struggles and vulnerabilities that you and I do? Do you see him as the father of two daughters, as a husband, as the child of a single parent? Whatever your feelings about President Obama, or Glen Beck’s politics, or Paris Hilton’s latest tabloid story, there is more to each of them than the one-dimensional characters we are shown in a 15 second news story.
Philosopher Martin Buber, many years ago, considered the way our media reduces people to one dimension and wrote:
“there is a hierarchy of deceptions. Near the bottom of the ladder is journalism: a steady stream of irresponsible distortions that most people find refreshing although on the morning after, or at least within a week, it will be stale and flat.” ― Martin Buber, I and Thou
The truth is, we know nothing about these people other than what someone has chosen to tell us. Likewise, with most of the people whom we meet in our day to day lives, we often know very little about them, their struggles, their fears, their strengths, and weaknesses. Accurately seeing the person before us requires that we pause and take the time to listen and to see beyond our initial perception. Sometimes this is easy to do, but other times it requires patience and the willingness to look past the things that we judge as unfavorable.
Each of us is a complex collection of strengths, weaknesses, fears, bravery, cowardice, goodness, evil, selfishness, and generosity. We are not one-dimensional creatures. We’re dynamic beings, constantly evolving, becoming more than we were before and less than we will be at some point in the future. We experience the world and discover ourselves and each other in the process. To reduce any of us to one-dimension, no matter how unique or flattering that dimension may be, diminishes us all.
I recently heard a sermon by Sharon Brous, one of my favorite Rabbis, in which she discussed the Aspen tree as a metaphor for the connection between human beings. I didn’t know this, but aspen trees aren’t really individual trees, but part of a larger colony with a common root system. The trees themselves might only live 150 years, but the root systems can live for thousands of years. In fact, one root system is estimated to be approximately 80,000 years old, making it one of the oldest living organisms on the planet. Like human beings, the single individual aspect of the aspen tree is what is first apparent, but if you look a little closer, take some time to examine the aspen tree, or the human, you’ll see that there is a much larger and longer-lasting connection just below the surface.