By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index
People ask me on a regular basis how I find things to write about on a near-daily basis.
The answer is as simple as it is constant. And unnerving.
I got nothing.
Which is actually an excellent place to begin.
The worst place to start – in any argument or difficulty – is to tell others – or ourselves – that we know what to do.
Ever spend time around a crying baby?
Crying babies are a great metaphor for a business, or government agency or even relationship in crisis.
The first principle is that a happy baby won’t be crying – and the second, related principle, is that a healthy baby will cry – but only if something is wrong.
A crying baby may be exhausting and frustrating – and may seem impossible to deal with.
But like a business – or even a relationship – there is actually a limited range of possible problems.
With a business, cash flow in some aspect, large or small, immediate or eventual, is the promise – and problem.
A small problem can be taken care of, or ignored until it becomes paralyzing and overwhelming.
As with taking care of a baby, the best strategy is not to insist that we know the solution, but to listen closely to what the situation is telling us.
2020 was a year when an unimaginable roster of problems hit their peaks.
Virtually every one, from COVID to fracturing politics to an economic implosion were both foreseeable and preventable.
We had panels of experts, boards and committees and a few prophets “crying out in the wilderness”.
But when the tsunamis hit, one after another, our experts and leaders fell all over themselves, blaming others, avoiding or minimizing the wall of disasters everyone could see coming.
Fatalism, that most un-American trait, became our go-to strategy.
“It is what it is” became the unifying call as our leaders shrugged their shoulders and gave up in the face of unprecedented challenges – that only became greater over time and increasing momentum.
In substance abuse programs, the first principle, the first step, is to admit that you have a problem.
When it came to the range of debilitating problems of 2020, we couldn’t even take that first step.
Denial, evasion and outright delusion defined most of 2020.
For the most part we didn’t know what to do because we only wanted to keep doing what we were already doing.
When that didn’t work, we made excuses, found (and fired) scapegoats and had rounds of pity-parties where we complained about how “unfair” everything was and how everyone was picking on us.
In short, we began to act like toddlers having a tantrum.
Which again, could not be more un-American.
In contrast, when I think of the ultimate American response to catastrophe or challenge, I think of the image of the explorer or Native scout with an ear to the ground, carefully listening to what the eye could not see.
A buffalo herd, an invading force, even a storm, could be felt long before it would become visible.
Once sensed, the impending threat, could be dealt with – or evaded.
Success was often just a matter of survival.
2020, with its rapidly increasingly unmanageable crises, became an exercise, not in problem solving or catastrophe intervention, but in obliviousness on a grand scale.
The tragedy of 2020, like the frustration of a relentlessly crying baby, was that the problems and potential solutions were not that many, not that difficult and not that unusual.
Any one of them could have been dealt with at an early stage.
As with the crying baby, we let the problems become crises before we even began to respond.
An economy, a health care system, or a political process, like a baby, has only a few, very basic principles.
A healthy baby, for example, has three basic needs; to be fed, to be clean and to not be uncomfortable – stomach gas or a pinched limb for example.
The principle is very simple. And in far more than 90% of the cases, easily taken care of.
But the trick is to listen to the baby – to allow the baby to “tell” (in its own way) what the problem is.
Bringing our own “solutions” to what may not be the problem will only bring, if not multiply, frustration.
We can “lawyer-up,” turn up the volume or rant and cry, but the problems, like the buffalo herd beyond the visible horizon, will only get more powerful and menacing as they approach.
In 2020 we ran out of metaphors, from dumpster fire (as I first wrote this, I accidently wrote “dumbster fire” – which may be the ultimate, and purely accidental, Freudian Slip) to roller coaster, to flood to whirlwind to whiplash and a dozen more.
But maybe the best metaphor is of a crying baby in the care of an inept, incompetent and uncaring grown-up, who, on every level, should have known better, could have done better and failed and floundered at every challenge.
All we ever needed in 2020 was someone with their ear to the ground who could listen, and one way or another, prepare for what was inevitably coming.
One of the oddities of 2020 was that the recurring defense of the incompetence was “explained” with the statement “No one could have seen it coming”.
That excuse is as pathetic as it is paltry; consider the image of the scout with his ear literally to the ground. If that scout knows one thing, it is that once the threat is within sight, it is too late.
The best scout, or leader or parent, doctor or even waiter, is the one who anticipates, who doesn’t wait until the problem become obvious, because they know, above all, that if you wait until something becomes visible, it is far too late.
If a doctor only catches cancer or diabetes when they see it, they have missed the opportunity to head it off. They should have been looking for precursors, for those leading-indicator symptoms before the symptoms.
Any political or economic leader should be paying attention to those subtle signs that no one else sees yet, those storm clouds forming far off in the distance, those tectonic plates shifting far out of normal sight and range.
A true leader is one who sees and acts long before catastrophe strikes, and often goes unheralded, even unrecognized.
So as I prepare to write an article, at my best, I got nothin’ – I’m just listening.