Finding the good beyond the crisis

By most metrics, Puerto Rico is not a success story. Yet Whitney’s story points to why it is too simplistic to look only at the negative – or only at the positive.

ALFREDO SOSA/STAFF
MODESTO VEGA SITS IN WHAT WAS THE SECOND FLOOR OF HIS HOUSE IN PUNTA SANTIAGO, PUERTO RICO

Since its founding, The Christian Science Monitor has sometimes struggled to convey why its approach to journalism is not naively optimistic. “We are not Pollyannas,” former editor Kay Fanning once said. “But we do believe that there is good everywhere, and we’re dedicated to improving the world by uncovering that good.”

It’s not that we don’t write about bad things – just look at our coverage of what’s happening in Syria, for instance. But we don’t let them define our approach and worldview. The Monitor is fundamentally constructive. American President John Adams frequently lamented the forces that sought only to tear down the new republic. He talked about the need for builders. The Monitor resolves to be one.

That struck me while reading Whitney Eulich’s cover story this week from Puerto Rico. By most metrics, Puerto Rico is not a success story. Its debt-laden finances have led it to be called the Greece of the Western Hemisphere. Its power grid is so antiquated that tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans still have no power eight months after hurricane Maria. And people are leaving the island in droves – nearly a million have migrated to the US mainland since 2005. Yet Whitney’s story points to why it is too simplistic to look only at the negative – or only at the positive.

After reading her article, I was certainly not left with a sense that all is well in Puerto Rico. To be frank, I was shocked. It seems unthinkable that any part of the US mainland would be without power for eight months after a natural disaster. Rural America rose up to elect President Trump when it felt it was forgotten. Rural Puerto Rico has no such recourse. Residents are simply being made to wait, in the dark, for months on end. Power crews are welcomed like celebrities. 

But that is not the whole story. Amid the frustration and despair, there is also determination and action. There are the two women in the town of Las Carolinas who hopped the fence around a boarded-up school and started using it as ground zero for local relief. The cafeteria sprang to life again as a community kitchen.

Are these women’s efforts the answer to Puerto Rico’s problems? No, in the sense that such so-called Centers of Mutual Support, replicated across the country, will not pay the country’s $130 billion in financial liabilities or restart the economy, which has shrunk every year since 2005. But yes, in the spirit they embody.

“Poverty has no causes,” economist Peter Bauer wrote. “Wealth has causes.” The women of Las Carolinas show why this is so. The potential for prosperity – hard work and innovation – is always latent everywhere. The question is whether it is given the conditions to thrive: education, rule of law, health, and reliable electrical power, to name a few. Puerto Rico’s current challenges show the depth of its needs. But Las Carolinas shows why those challenges are not hopeless. The seeds of prosperity are already there, waiting to flourish.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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