When Bad Priorities Happen to Good People

In Texas, I once worked for a religious non-profit founded by an heir to one of the state’s largest oil fortunes. She was a good woman who was—and is—doing a tremendous work to help vulnerable people. I admire her greatly.

On September 11, I drove to work as usual. En route, I noticed every flag at every business and government building flying at half staff. My own workplace building loomed large over a busy intersection in a city north of Dallas. I stopped at a red light and noticed that the flag out front was still at full-staff. It puzzled me. Had someone forgotten what day it was?

At my desk, I emailed the chief operations officer about the flag. It was 9/11, I said. My brother had fought in Iraq. He’d lost men there. Could we lower the flag to half-staff? My hands trembled as I typed “send.” The un-lowered flag felt surprisingly personal to me.

The COO sent a quick reply. The flag pole was broken, he said. Had been broken for some time. They couldn’t lower the flag. They were trying to get someone to come out to fix it. He thanked me for raising the issue up the flagpole. Smiley face.

I liked this man and would willingly work for him again and count it a privilege. I once saw him on his hands and knees at the entrance to my office area, in dress shoes and pressed khakis, grouting tile. He’d rather do it himself, he said, than pay a contractor ten times what it cost him to fix it. I admire that spirit. He’s a good, fair, and humble man. And very competent.

That’s why it surprised me so much when three months later I drove to work on Pearl Harbor Day and noticed that the flag was still at full-staff. I sent an email to the COO. It was December 7th, I said. 2,400 Americans were killed on this day in 1941. The event that drove a reluctant and ill-prepared nation into World War II. Could we lower the flag to half-staff? The full-staff flag at the busy intersection made everyone passing by think that we didn’t care about veterans or our nation’s tragedies. Surely we didn’t want that.

He was apologetic. The flag pole was still broken. So very sorry. They were trying to get someone out to fix it.

I felt disappointed. I looked up at the chandeliers in the lobby. They were made out of deer or elk horns and were each the size of a mini-bus. They ran, I imagined, a cool $5,000-$10,000 apiece. I loved them. It hurt to think that our organization had the resources to purchase such lovely ornaments, but didn’t have the resources to get our flag lowered to half-staff.

Now, of course, I realize that the problem wasn’t a lack of resources. It was a lack of priority. I believe that the COO and the founder of that nonprofit genuinely cared about veterans. They just didn’t see the flagpole the same way I did. It didn’t hurt them personally. When stuff hits us in the gut, we tend to make it a priority.

I’ve been thinking about that in recent days. There are things happening right now which I want someone to do something about. I want politicians to take a stand for what’s right, even if it hurts. I want them to proactively deal with matters rather than waiting for their electoral base to agitate enough that they are forced to finally do something decisive. I hear a lot of words about need for change. I just don’t see any action. It’s not a lack of resources. We have lots of pretty chandeliers. It’s just good people with bad priorities.

Less I feel too self-righteous, I can think of dozens of ways in my own life that I fail to properly prioritize. A lot of the things on my Honey-Do List are well within my ability to execute. They just don’t hit me in the gut. So they stay on the list with my best intentions to someday get around to them. Sometimes it’s only my wife’s assertive reminders that leverage me enough to get up off the couch and do the difficult or unpleasant task.

I wish I were more like “Charlie.” When I worked at a medical school in Maine, there was a tall flagpole out front. I barely noticed it.

Charlie did. He was a current student and a former Navy SEAL. One day he stalked into my office in Graduate Student Affairs, broad shoulders tensed, face as red as his hair.

“You seen that flag out front?” he said, his words coming hard and fast.

I hadn’t.

“It’s shredded. It looks like it’s been dragged fifteen clicks behind a humvee. It’s an absolute disgrace.” He was big and fit and had graduated from the same high school as me. I wanted him to like me.

I nodded apologetically and adjusted my purple-striped tie. “Gee, that’s a shame,” I said. “I think you need to talk to someone in Facilities…”

Charlie interrupted. “Your brother’s a Marine, right?”

I nodded.

“Well, that’s his flag, too. And it’s a disgrace. So what are you going to do about it?”

I felt my face burn. Charlie was right. “I’ll take care of it,” I said, picking up the phone. I rather expected him to leave.

Instead, Charlie folded his arms and stayed by my desk until he heard me talk directly to the Facilties manager. When I finally hung up, he smiled. “Good job,” he said. “Thanks for doing that.” Then he stalked out.

It’s not always a lack of resources that keep us from doing what’s right. It’s not always poor character. Sometimes bad priorities happen to good people. People like our politicians. People like you and me.

Maybe it’s time more of us started acting like Charlie.

bad_priorities_to_good_people
via John Westrock, Creative Commons

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