Executive Perspective

Living in a Code Orange World

by Paul D. Houston

Since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, we all have recognized that our world has changed. Things aren’t and never will be the way they were before. While we have been saddened by the loss of life, we also have grieved for the loss of innocence we enjoyed before discovering we no longer can be certain of our safety.

Yet when you think about it, losing our innocence is one sign of maturity. As we grow older, we often realize things aren’t always the way we presumed. Icons disappoint us. Institutions fail us. Things that once worked break down. Buildings fall and certainties crumble. We see the world through new lenses--sometimes bifocaled ones. It is all a part of growing up. But with the losses we suffer can come wisdom.

Living in the Washington, D.C., area, which will no doubt continue to be a target of terrorism, I am acutely aware of the government’s public warnings that color-code the potential danger of terrorism. Honestly, I don’t find them helpful. There isn’t much I can do when the danger potential shifts from yellow to orange. I suppose I could worry more. But I am reminded of Mark Twain’s admonition: “Worry is interest paid in advance on trouble that never happens.” It seems a waste to worry about something that likely will not happen, and if it does happen, I have only a minimal chance of changing the outcome.

Uncertainty Reigns
So where does that leave all of us living in a code orange world? We know one thing for certain: Nothing is certain.

For those of us who have lived our lives as school leaders that reality should not be new territory. We probably realized that long before now. What it requires is for us to be flexible and nimble. We have to embrace uncertainty and the paradox of living in a wonderful country where we will never feel totally safe again. It also means we must have a much greater appreciation for the price we pay for the pleasures we have. There are no free lunches and there are no free freedoms. We must enjoy what we have knowing the check will come due sooner or later. That is a lesson we learn when we grow up and have to pay our own way in the world.

But living in a code orange world means we must rely on help that is greater than us. One of the movies that I particularly enjoyed this past year was “Signs.” It is a thriller with some fairly deep messages to it. One of the ironies of the movie, which at one level is about an invasion of aliens, was that shooting for the movie was scheduled to begin on Sept. 11, 2001.

The film possesses a dark, foreboding quality that matches well some of the somberness we feel living in a code orange world. Yet on a deeper level the movie is about faith and loss of faith. It raises the question of are we alone in the universe? It is about whether humans are the only intelligent species there is, but more profoundly it really raises the question of whether human beings are left to their own devices in a hostile universe or is there something greater that gives us hope and help.

A Common Response
I will leave you to answer that theological question for yourself, but I will suggest a more temporal answer for you. In a code orange world, we cannot go it alone. We must believe and act on the belief that we are in this together. One of the great challenges and opportunities for leaders is to bring people together, to heal and to build bridges of understanding. And we also must know that we need that same mutual support from each other.

I recently heard a speaker who made a simple yet compelling observation. He pointed out that if you drained the Pacific Ocean you would discover that all the islands are connected. That metaphor presents a roadmap of hope for all of us living in a code orange world. We must get below the surface of things to discover our common interests and needs. As Martin Luther King once reminded us, we are all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

Living in a world of uncertainly requires us to weave our web of mutuality together, to help each other become all we can and to have faith in each other. And as leaders, it requires us to lead others toward that beacon of hope that shines in the darkness.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.