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Watching the news the other night, I got a shock when I heard something absolutely profound: big hard things can only be done together.
Wow, I thought—what a remarkable insight. I repeated that simple, single line over and over in my mind: big hard things can only be done together.
Not many people watch television news, I realize, for inspiration. Me, neither. I usually watch an hour of TV news each night, and read a good daily newspaper every morning, not to be inspired, but to keep up with what’s happening in the world. OK, I admit it, because I’m a news junkie, too. Most of the stories I see tend to be pretty negative: the latest global crisis, famine or war; the latest political scandal; the latest environmental disaster; the latest shocking crime, caught on videotape! (I hate it when the announcers scream at me like that…)
So when I heard that profound line—big hard things can only be done together—it really did surprise me. Unaccustomed as I am to hearing any actual wisdom from TV news, I had to sit back, mute the sound and actually ponder it. Apparently, deep philosophical insights rarely get delivered via the news media. I know—not too surprising, right?
I’ve even forgotten who said it now, because television news these days offers an endless look-alike parade of expert commentators/talking heads, and I was trying to read a book at the same time, and I felt myself getting a little sleepy, too. It came at the end of a long hard day slaving away at the keyboard, and since the weather woman showed lots of little snowflakes in the forecast, I also spent a few hours hauling really heavy oak firewood up two flights of stairs and shoveling some snow. No wonder I had already started to drift off into dreamland, right? Anyway, when whoever it was uttered that line (Since you already know it by now, I’ll abbreviate it: BHTCOBDT), suddenly my tiredness fled and my eyes opened wide and I began to breathe deeply.
After hearing that line, I wanted, right away, to think of some examples. That’s just how my brain works, I guess. When I come up against something that strikes me as true, I immediately test it mentally. Usually, I try to come up with at least three proof points for any potential truth I encounter. If I can do that, and the premise stands the investigative test of those three points, I provisionally accept it, assuming it agrees with further life experience.
So in this short series of essays, let’s take a look at that particular premise—big hard things can only be done together—and see if we can verify it.
You can come up with your own proof points by playing along at home, but the first one that came to me was my grandfather and the experience he had with eight thousand of his closest friends building a really big dam. In the 1930s and ‘40s, my grandfather Olaf Langness worked as a construction foreman on the biggest building project ever undertaken up to that point—the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State. The Grand Coulee, still there today, holds back the mighty Columbia River. Truly grand, it took 8000 people to build it, and 77 of them lost their lives during nine years of construction. My grandfather fell off a scaffold, fell 50 feet and broke his back. An onsite doctor fixed the break, and my grandfather went back to work.
At the time, Woody Guthrie wrote a whole suite of music about the Grand Coulee Dam called “Columbia River Songs.” In one of the songs, Woody sang “The big Grand Coulee Dam, the biggest thing humanity’s ever done.” In 1942, that was definitely true.
I asked my grandfather about working on the Grand Coulee, and he described the experience as one of the most fulfilling of his entire life, because “When you work on one big thing, thousands of people together all pulling in one direction, why, that gives your life purpose. You feel something in here.” As he said that he tapped his chest.
I think what my grandfather felt as he helped build that dam was unity. Everyone “together all pulling in one direction,” as he put it, nicely describes what unified action feels like.
Have you ever had that experience yourself? Athletes do, because they’re often members of a team, all pulling together in one direction. Occasionally, teams of people in the workplace can have that unified motivation, too. People who work in groups for a common cause for social good feel that unity, and it can be an intense and gratifying reward. In fact, anyone who works selflessly together in a joint effort will likely develop that feeling of unified action.
The Baha’i teachings encourage the development of that kind of unity throughout all areas of human endeavor:
It is certain that the greatest of instrumentalities for achieving the advancement and the glory of man, the supreme agency for the enlightenment and the redemption of the world, is love and fellowship and unity among all the members of the human race. Nothing can be effected in the world, not even conceivably, without unity and agreement … – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 73.
In the next essays in this series, let’s take a searching look at that claim—that “nothing can be effected in the world, not even conceivably, without unity and agreement.”