My Fellow Citizens,
I haven’t been able to get my bearings on events in northern Syria this week. There’s a book I keep within reach for moments like these. One of the most pragmatic skills of all lies in the study of history and politics.
We practice that skill without giving it a name. We know its value but rarely make a case for it. Writing in 1986, Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May called it “Thinking in Time.”
I wish an earlier version of me had thought to start a note inside the front cover to track what world events push me to revisit their book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers by Richard E. Neustadt. With every update from Turkey, Syria, and Russia, I ask myself what I know about the causes and effects of events there. I tread the same tired path without uncovering anything new. That’s when I heard an excellent exercise of Neustadt and May’s thinking in time.
Michael Barbaro used his New York Times podcast, The Daily, to talk to Ben Hubbard, a reporter who has worked in the region for decades. They traced today’s situation back to our invasion of Iraq in 2003, and then to 9/11. Then they asked if we shouldn’t go as far back as the first Iraq war in 1990. And let’s not forget that the Kurdish people were promised land to call their own at the end of World War I.
Just as the expanse of that reality came into view and looked like too much to bear, we started celebrating the life and legacy of U.S. Congressman Elijah Cummings. He started his career in Congress with a 46-word poem about having only a minute.
A minute he didn’t choose. A minute he couldn’t waste or abuse. A minute he would have to account for and use, “Only a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.”
His minute provided the perfect antidote to feeling overwhelmed and powerless. I had often contemplated the power of the experience Cummings and other civil rights leaders brought to Congress with them. Having witnessed the very worst of what we’re capable of doing, he never lost faith that we could do better. We have been made better by their belief in us.
Now I understand that they carry time with them.
Today, that 46-word poem works to connect us to a powerful beginning in Congress and a long career of service. That minute Representative Cummings marked on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives came through the words of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, a “spiritual mentor” and “intellectual father” to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mays served as the President of Morehouse College for 27 years. He challenged students there with Tuesday morning chapel services, and Dr. King had been a student who attended them. Mays’ parents had been born into slavery. They were freed when the Civil War was won.
That one minute had a lot to say about who we had been. When Congressman Cummings brought those words to Congress with him, they put us all on notice about who we must become.
This, too, is thinking in time. Neustadt and Mays tell us that “thinking of time as a stream need not induce discouragement about the future.” That’s where I was stuck with Syria.
Thinking in “time-streams” asks us all to visualize a “desired future in realistic turns” so that we can figure out “step by step, detail by detail, what ‘then’ requires all the way back to ‘now,’ or conversely how ‘now’ might be turned by stages into something approaching ‘then.’”
Then and now, of today and the future, all turn on what we do with our minute. There’s no time for thinking there’s nothing we can do.
Let's keep thinking in time together,