Friday, June 19, 2009

Moral Documents in Everyday Life

It is an odd confluence of events. In my current day job (as a chief financial officer of a nonprofit social services agency) we just finished reviewing our budget for the next fiscal year. Given the issues with the economy and state funding and on-going legislative processes, it has large portions of crystal ball gazing associated with it. One thing I try to emphasize is that the budget is not an independent document but one that is associated with agency and departmental plans and goals, so that, despite having to make educated guesses about what funding sources are going to do, the document has some basis in and bearing on reality. We use a story-telling technique (coming from a discernment exercise by Charles Olsen that I learned in seminary: "once upon a time; and then; but before that") as a way of presenting the story behind the budget to the board.

In the past several years religious leaders have made the case when the President was presenting his budget to Congress, that
the budget is a moral document. I think that's true, yet from my point of view, it is somewhat optimistic. I'd like for our agency budget to be at least a reality based document that does reflect our values and goals, but I often feel that it is good for about 5 minutes after it's completed until it has lost touch with reality, or perhaps before people just begin to ignore the plans that we've spent weeks making. If there is no linkage to every day plans and values, then the budget just deserves to be confetti next week, because no one really will pay attention to it. If moral principles are our guides in everyday actions, then we've been either immoral or missing the mark in our translation of these documents to an every day life.

This week in Sojourners Jim Wallis makes the comment that
a calendar is a moral document. While Wallis was making this point relative to his own travel and work schedule as a father, I happened to have been reading The NaNny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (also a movie) about parents who really have no time at all for their children or each other, and who hire a nanny to take care of the children. It's a sad commentary when parents' calendars have no time for the flow time of children. For that matter, it's sad when adults have no flow time of their own.

But, it made me wonder what other things might be considered "moral documents" in our everyday lives. My daughter is on Facebook now and thinks I should join. I suspect that the Facebook wall might definitely be considered a moral document, and I wonder about what that says about our moral compass.

Would our email inbox or sent mail folder be considered a moral document? Even disregarding the spam about drugs and sex, the emails that I have signed up for make a statement about what is important to me. Certainly the twenty emails about the appropriate dress for the eighth grade recognition and celebration/party afterwards were moral documents, but if parents really thought that some of the dresses and shoes that I saw the other night were appropriate for a 13-14 year old girl (call me a prude), then we have need for more self-reflection about our moral standards and messages to our children. And that, of course, is Jim Wallis' point. Our lives, in our spending of time and money, in what we say and convey to our children in private and public media, define our morality. But do we, or how do we, ever stop to examine what those documents say about us and what we value? How do we learn and how do we teach discernment?

I confess I never "took" to ethics classes in seminary, with the debates on the virtues and philosophical constructs, although I did like the professional ethics seminar where we discussed real life and the gray of some situations and the slippery slope of others. That is the difficulty with moral documents, knowing when and where to draw the line, because much of life is/has become less black and white. Where do we cross over that line in our budget, in our personal spending, in our calendar, in our email, in our blog?

I was reminded of the following poem from the wonderful anthology Good Poems for Hard Times edited by Garrison Keillor:

"For a Five-Year-Old" by Fleur Adcock

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.

So how do we end up at only kindness to snails? When and how do we review and correct our actions reflected in our moral documents, so that our kindnesses and our relationships really reflect the values that we want to convey to others, especially to our children? In financial terms, you have an audit. That shares the same root as audio--to listen. Do we make time to listen, to examine, to understand?

As summer comes, may we each have time for flow, for listening to ourselves and to others--especially our children, and may we look carefully at our moral documents and make sure they reflect the values we want to have and share.


  1. tried posting twice and couldn't. I am going to save from now on. Anyway, I liked your writing. I always do. Because it is good and you make a point. Good points. I just spoke with the customer service woman for our propane deliverer to ask her why they left a voicemail saying we had to move our tank. Because the tech says so she said, at which point I might have raise my voice an octave and she became offended. Can't we raise our voices other than in song anymore? I am kind to snails afterall.

  2. Maybe it's this post about moral documents--I had to try to save it about 5 times and rewrote the last part twice as a result. Something about moral issues is hard to take?
    I might be kind to snails, but the slugs ... if it rains much more here all of the potted plants outside will be covered.