It is scarcely possible to open the newspaper – as I still do – without coming face to face with a “crisis.” It may be in Syria, North Korea, Greece, Sudan, London, New Hampshire or Penn Station. The causes are as various as the sites: terrorism, civil war, missiles, religion, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, immigration, opiates, climate change, rotting infrastructure and revenge. Together, they threaten to merge in a generalized sense of danger, unchecked and uncontrollable.
Crisis: what has that word come to mean? Can a single act betoken a crisis? Must a situation persist, resisting change or amelioration, to constitute a crisis? Or is it a moment when forces hang in the balance pending a resolution? Does a crisis impel an immediate response? Or can a crisis endure as a chronic condition? Is a crisis something different from a calamity? Is this more than a semantic problem?
My first memory of the use of the word “crisis” goes back 55 years to 1962: the Cuban missile crisis. I was 15 and frightened. My mother urged me to trust the president – it was his business to keep us safe. But my fear bested her reasoning and I shouted back, “My life is my business.” My bedside radio stayed on all night. Long before the Internet was around to hype the event, or conspirators trolled the airwaves, radio reporters conveyed a sense through their tense, deadpan broadcasts and uninterrupted coverage that the world was in extremis – and that world included me.
What characterized the Cuban missile crisis, as I experienced it, was a sense that the world hung precariously, urgently, in balance in that moment. It wasn’t simply a matter of good v. evil, communism v. capitalism, democracy v. autocracy. It wasn’t a trend or a pattern. It wasn’t even complex. It was life or death. Further, it was a moment when it seemed that the outcome was in the hands of just two men – John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. It was terrifying to conjure up the consequences of a false move by either one. It was wholly unclear whether the naval quarantine ordered by Kennedy would trigger a Soviet nuclear response.
The public crisis lasted six days and ended, as we now remember, with the Soviet Union dismantling the missiles it had installed in Cuba. The quarantine subsequently was lifted. There was a resolution. To be sure, there were and are lingering consequences of the affair, but the crisis, as such, was over.
Not so easy now. The events and conditions deemed “crises” have a myriad of causes. They defy unilateral, or bilateral, solutions. They persist. One crisis – an earthquake – segues into another – cholera. Drought becomes starvation. Perhaps this is abetted by the communications glut, or by one critical need attempting to outbid the other for resources and attention. Or perhaps it is the seemingly impenetrable complexity of an interconnected world that baffles and overwhelms us.
All is not dark and hopeless — far from it. Remarkably good and promising things are happening all around us, sparkling with optimism. To resist and protest is uplifting. To learn about biological, technological, physiological, artistic and archaeological break-throughs is exhilarating. But it is nevertheless concerning that the recurrent branding of world events as crises may lead us to become increasingly insensible to situations and events that are critical, including those that could be intelligently addressed and perhaps solved. Crises seem not to invite solutions. Rather, they have become conditions that evoke hand-wringing, check-writing and marching on the way to acceptance of the unacceptable, as we go back to business.
Privately, we disclaim responsibility for solutions by acknowledging we are not the ones who can cure cancer, end greenhouse emissions or give peace a chance. We are not rocket-scientists. We deprecate our potential to foster change that might, just marginally, relieve despairing conditions of one kind or another, in one place or another. “We must be the change we wish to see,” Gandhi wrote. Does the massing of crises debilitate our capacity to see how?
The starfish story comes to mind. The child tosses a starfish back in the ocean, recognizing the truth that there are too many beached starfish for her alone to save them all. But, as she wisely notes, she makes a difference to each one she rescues. It is unusual for one person to effect that difference, though Malala Yousafzai, in her context, comes to mind. More commonly, like Alan Kurdi’s drowning, the individual produces an outcry, but no change.
Crises are, for the most part, created by men and women, often (though not always) with evil intent. And it is possible for men and women of good will to chip away at them, even if comprehensive solutions elude us. Though we may not absolve ourselves fully of responsibility by taking marginal actions to problem-solve – by speaking out, stepping up, persisting in outrage — our humanity demands that, as we lurch from disaster to catastrophe, we not allow ourselves to become hardened to crisis as a way of life.
The Langfollow archives reveal that it’s been well over a year since I last wrote on this site. Initially, the explanation – or excuse – was a relapse into depression. (Depression is not a source of creative energy.) When I emerged in full appreciation of life, I continued to avoid the site, as if it might trap me in my prior grieving and grievous state of mind. That fear is past. Now 70 years old, with a feeling of hopefulness and competence, I am returning.
My father was the subject of one of my earliest essays. He was then 96 and living a curious, sometimes surreal, life of an Alzheimer’s patient, with the complication of a brain injury from a fall. His life ended on April 8, 2017, at the age of 98, in a deepening sleep in the home where he had lived for 48 years. A lengthy obituary and death notice in the New York Times and Washington Post summarized an awesome (correctly used in this context) life as a creative entrepreneur and philanthropist. Aspects of this life were in turn recounted at his funeral service at Temple Emanu-El by some of those most deeply connected to him.
My eulogy did not review the chronology of his life. Instead, I examined his thinking about the values that guided his trajectory. I feel intensely that I must revisit that eulogy on this site before going on, as my father’s death is surely a defining moment in the arc of my own life.
“My father’s achievements — his inspirational character, his creativity, his boundless curiosity, his infectious enthusiasm and his innovative daring — have been widely recognized and honored. He was no shrinking violet, and he enjoyed the glow of recognition. But what people ask me over and over, in various ways, is how to understand what motivated his philanthropy. What led him to commit over 95% of his considerable resources, and an equal amount of his time, to creating opportunity for others?
Thinking about this takes me back to the simple prayer — we called it “grace” — that my father composed, and taught my brothers and me to recite at Friday night dinner when we were children:
“Thank you, God, for having such a nice mommy and daddy and brothers. Thank you for having such a nice house to live in and for having such good food to eat.
Help us to deserve and appreciate all these blessings.”
Deserve and appreciate. Those were the operative words, central to my father’s moral philosophy and key to understanding his instinct for philanthropy.
They originated with my grandparents, particularly my grandfather, Daniel Lang. I remember as a child climbing over the stone wall that separated my grandfather’s farm from an abandoned orchard. Once on the other side, there was no lollygagging. “If you don’t pick apples, you don’t eat apples,” Grandfather admonished us. Clearly, we were expected to earn our rewards. We would deserve the apples only if we worked for them.
This was an essential lesson of my father’s upbringing — tinged with Grandfather’s socialism.
To this my father added the second element of our family prayer: appreciation of the blessings of family, home, food.
I came to understand from this that we were never to take anything for granted, never to assume any entitlement. We were to be aware that our family, our home, our food, were blessings for which we were to be thankful.
It would be easy to take those two elements — deservedness and appreciation — and turn inwards, that is, to celebrate the exclusivity of our own successes — to eat our own apples, if you will.
But that would undermine the core intent of our prayer of thanksgiving. As we dutifully turned off the lights, finished what was on our plates and picked up pennies from the street, my father gave us to understand that blessings are not evenly distributed in our world — even in our own communities. That we must not be careless or thoughtless in the enjoyment of our blessings. That part of being deserving and appreciative requires us to think how we can make it possible for others to enjoy these blessings too.
Thus, as he saw it, philanthropy is not an act of “giving back.” It is simply an essential element of living a moral, fulfilling and responsible life, as fundamental as breathing. But it became even more than that to him. It morphed from a disciplined belief to an emotional high, as my father himself learned that philanthropy at its best is not a one-way street. If you look at photos of my father celebrating milestones with “his dreamers,” you will understand that giving was a source of tremendous joy to him. He was exhilarated by the projects of Lang Opportunity Scholars at Swarthmore, and by the graduations of Lang Youth Scholars at the American Museum of Natural History and New York Presbyterian Hospital. He was elated by the promise of research at New York Hospital Queens. Excited by the new generation of students and faculty at Lang College at the New School, and by the prospect of integrating civic and social responsibility in college curricula.
All of this genuinely thrilled my father. He would tell you, as he told me, that through giving, he received the greatest gifts, and that anything he did not give, he lost by not giving it.
Giving became the essence of a purposeful life for my father. He immersed himself in it creatively, and passionately. Two years ago, he told me of his sadness about losing his sense of purpose. As Alzheimer’s Disease depleted his marvelous capacity to spin out ideas for new projects, he felt keenly the loss of what had energized him for decades.
But there were moments when that excitement returned, particularly following student concerts at home. One day last year, after two students from Concerts in Motion had performed for him, he asked them, “How do you know when you’ve performed well?” At first, the students answered somewhat tentatively — the audience applauds. But my father shook his head: No, he said, and he put his hand to his chest, how does it “feel inside” when you’ve performed well? The students thought hard — how to put into words what it felt like — and they did, they described the physical and emotional elation, and my father nodded vigorously, satisfied that he had shared in their joy of making music and in the recognition of a job well done.
Two weeks before he died, my father said to me clearly and simply: “The future lies wholly in the past.” He refused to elaborate. In that moment, I recognized what he was saying: the gig was up. But what a past — and what a future he created for all of us.
Gandhi said: My life is my message. And so it was for my father too.
Thank you, God: Help us to deserve and appreciate the blessing that was his life.”
Now, it is time for me to return.