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The Artful Duty of Public Service: Changing Lives and Intersecting Moments In History

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lisa Saye
March 12, 2018

The Statue of Liberty, NY, Photo by Lisa Saye

The Human Condition

In 1878, Friedrich Nietzsche observed that humans were becoming too focused on our own lifespans. It was one of many notions he published in his book, Human, All Too Human. Almost a decade later, in 1887, just as Woodrow Wilson was separating politics from administration, Nietzsche was again cautioning us as a civilization about our not wanting to grow greater, lamenting “we had lost our love, our hope and our reverence for mankind.”

One can argue that the human condition is experiencing one of the most confusing periods in its history. The injuries to its core are too numerous to cover in a few paragraphs. With each new injury, especially those requiring immediate government intervention, public servants have offered remedies to help citizens grow greater, including recommendations for more effective housing, transportation and everything else in between. If public administration is the landscape of government, then public servants represent the largest fleet of human assistance under the stars. Public servants take warnings and injuries seriously because we have, all too often, served as society’s first responders.

This column won’t abandon the symmetry with which I’ve attempted to weave an existential narrative between public administration and public service. No, instead I’ll try to turn down the volume on a subject that should be discussed in a lower frequency — a conversation everyone should have and should do so on any device.

For starters, our collective human condition has never been a continuous combination of magnolias and sunshine. If it were, there would be no need for government, order or laws. We would simply wake up each day to a newer version of utopia. Instead, we wake up each morning to what we’ve left undone and unmade from days, even decades before. As public servants, we attempt to gather our issues into neat piles of education, transportation, immigration or housing, but we never really resolve things completely. Perhaps that’s because we’re feasting on too much cellphone or perhaps not enough.

Clarity, Painting by Lisa Saye

Duty, like Art, is in the Eye of the Beholder

A famous human once said that there is “no accounting for taste.” What one person calls art, another person calls scribbles of paint.

I recently completed my first painting. I call it Clarity, of all things. It is a blue boat on a dark rolling sea, its lavender sails outlined in black and lit up by a tortured midnight moon. I’m not under any illusions that my painting would set or break any records at Sotheby’s, but that doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that on a canvas slightly larger than a sheet of typing paper, I chose a theme and added colors that subconsciously depicted my idea of the scattered state of the human condition. It bothers me that less than a month ago, many Americans returned home from various directions to the sad news of yet another massacre. I’m bothered that years ago and following a similar tragedy, I stood at a whiteboard in a classroom tallying the number of gun-related bills introduced in Congress against the actual number that became law. At the time, I think the result was 13 to 0. I’m bothered that it was considered too soon then and that it seems as though it is still too soon to do anything meaningful about it.

We now find ourselves in the midst of yet another counting moment. One in which a rehearsed energy inhabits policy halls disguising itself as needed debate. I really want to believe there will be changes that will address the human condition this time, but I’m too post-Matrix to fall for another set of well-meaning sermonettes.

I think I might have to temporarily agree with Nietzsche and admit our current human condition is a reflection of the degree to which we celebrate demoralizations as accomplishments. The current health of our collective human condition exists for a number of reasons. The least of which is a lack of duty. Whose job is it to care for us? Is public service a job or can we finally admit that it is a vocation?

I don’t want to believe that we can’t trust each other. I want to believe in the notion of government as caretaker for the least of us. Public servants aren’t packaged in shrink-wrap nor are we preserved in glass jars and placed on high shelves. Our lot is compassionate, able, insightful, diligent and humane. We are the timepieces intersecting moments in history making us duty-bound to affect life changes for the people we serve.

My painting revealed my fear as well as my humanity and reminded me of my duty. A lonely boat on a dark ocean is a shameful depiction of reality after everything we have been through as a people, as a society and as a nation of immigrants. Public Service is personal and requires the belief that one can make a difference. Public Service is not darkness and hopelessness, but rather, it is the light we bring to the human condition we find it in. And no matter the human condition, no matter our place or position in life, public servants inherently know that we all exist within the vapors of a distant mercy. It’s never too soon to do something meaningful. It’s too soon not to.

Images: All images were taken by Lisa Saye; The Statute of Liberty and Clarity (painting by Lisa Saye).


Author: Lisa Saye served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. Saye earned her Master’s in Human Resource Management from Troy University and her Doctorate in Public Administration from The University of Alabama. She can be reached at [email protected]

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