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Office Depot:  Sorting Lives and Impacts in Challenging Times, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Feb


The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone. Harriet Beecher Stowe

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. Albert Einstein

Time is a circus, always packing up and moving away. Ben Hecht

It’s in the act of having to do things that you don’t want to that you learn something about moving past the self. bell hooks

Like so many Sundays before this one, I made the early journey from apartment to office to write, of course, but also to sort the essential and discard the non-essential fruits of what has been, with the support of many who will read this piece, a very long, multi-phased and hopefully useful program of work.

It is time for us to move our office of longstanding, to close a chapter (though not our project) that has been filled with doing and undoing, of caring too much and too little, of an only incomplete ability to practice in our inner spaces the values we advocate externally for others, of opportunities for service missed because, as hard as we might have tried, we just couldn’t move far enough “past the self.”

We, of course, are the lucky ones, with lives more stable and abundant than most.  Unlike many whose living spaces are threatened routinely — especially the migrants and refugees who are the subject of new and hopeful Compacts crafted by some of our finest UN diplomats — we have places to go, places that are safer, warmer and more predictable than is the case for many — if not most — of our erstwhile “constituents.”

These places are also more likely to be full of “stuff.”  Like many people in this housing and space-starved city, moving is more complicated than simply tossing all of your worldly belongings in boxes to be hauled to the next destination by “professionals.”  There is simply too much “stuff” clogging up our life spaces for most of us to bear, let alone to properly house.  We at GAPW have simply saved too much, perhaps assuming a level of importance for the contents of our files and closets that belies any and all evidence and that has inadvertently prevented us from adopting a careful and timely triage. The sins of this failure are now being visited on back and arm muscles as we attempt to carry hundreds of pounds of books and papers to their new locations through the winter chill and then on to subways that don’t know the definition of timely.

The GAPW office will soon relocate to my home, at least for now. This requires a second sorting so that room can be made to accommodate the history of our collective engagement over almost 20 years, work that was at times visionary and at times impertinent; at times hospitable and at times hard-hearted; at times hyper-active and at other times timid about embracing the larger tasks that still remain undone.

And there remain tasks undone indeed, especially evident from this space. In one week of UN discussions, we have been reminded of the massive funds for sustainable development still to be raised; the “hard sell” (for some states) implementation of voluntary compacts on migration and refugees; the oppressive violence (and apparent use of forbidden weapons) in Syria that still impede stable cease fire arrangements and life-saving humanitarian access; the weapons-grade fissile materials that remain unregulated; the civilian infrastructure that is still not sufficiently protected from terror threats; the peacekeepers sent ever-more-frequently into conflict zones which challenge their ability to protect themselves, let alone the civilians they are mandated to protect.

We have collectively done much, less than our opportunities and access to make change might perhaps suggest, but more than we are generally given credit for.  But either way, the work undone remains vast.  Our plates remain full long past the point that our heads and hearts have begun to feel stuffed.

So what does all of this have to do with losing a small office and the project partners who we have enjoyed for many years?  For us, a couple of lessons, ones that might be valuable to you as well.

First, the “sorting” that is now taking place in my office under considerable duress should have been a more constant feature of our work.  We need more regular reminders of where we’ve come from and where we haven’t; what has worked and what hasn’t; how we have enabled good work by others and, at times, sabotaged our own.  There are important, life and organization-changing lessons in those file drawers and book shelves that we would do well to consult more often.

Second, we need to be mindful routinely of just how much we accumulate.  Every Sunday morning on the way to this office, I connect to an “E” train that often has dozens of homeless sleeping on what are warm but surely uncomfortable benches.  Some of these people have brought along – often in shopping carts procured from local merchants – their entire lot of worldly possessions.  By comparison, I of the modest salary and even more modest surroundings have enough clutter in my life to easily fill an entire subway car.  This is shameful, really, a testament to hedging my material bets as in “I might just need this someday,” hoarding more than I think and sharing less than I imagine.

Third and last has to do with what an office for a small cohort of non-profit projects is for.  Why have we collectively sunk so many resources for so many years into a space we now can’t keep?  There are many reasons, of course, one having to do with access to diplomats and UN agencies; another related to the “brand” of a UN Plaza address; one having to do with the five minute walk being all that is required to go back and fetch something we’ve forgotten to bring to a General Assembly meeting; another related to the fact that, at the end of the day, we managed to secure cost-effective space in a ridiculously pricey neighborhood.

But I think that, for Global Action at least, the greatest benefit of this space relates to what has been perhaps our singular contribution to UN practice; the “hospitality” that we have been humbled to offer people and projects from around the world, including those seeking a voice in global policy that they probably should have found long ago.  To be able to offer a place to sit and confer, to share coffee and dream of ways to promote a more just social order, to find resources and access passes for people of diverse backgrounds who feel “cut out” of discussions that are directly relevant to their communities, this is the most important part of our practice and the part we are most grieved to lose.

In the moral teachings of the church in which I was raised and later seminary educated, a close connection is maintained between the “things we have done” and the “things we have left undone.”  The implication here, rightly I have come to believe, is that “things undone” constitute our greatest moral failing, the things we refuse to see or be moved by, the questions we ignore because of their implications for our prior commitments, the doors we walk through and fail to hold open for others.

We will soon have to adjust to life without an office, and this transition will not be an easy one, neither for us nor those who have found a bit of solace and hope in our space. There have been tears over this and there will likely be more to come. But the lives we have long-ago pledged to impact, lives with too many guns and too few hugs, with too many challenges and too few options, these lives will keep us engaged.  We’ve had a good run in this “depot” and could not be more grateful for your friendship and support over many years.  But the longer run remains unfinished; we must get packed and then get moving again, find our better balance, redouble efforts towards the “things largely undone” of equity, security and inclusiveness.

Einstein’s bicycle still beckons.