Circles of Life

I grew up in the middle of Kansas, in the middle of America, in the middle of the 20th century. Naturally the racial attitudes in our home reflected our time and place.

But over time I came into personal friendship with several African-Americans. I didn’t seek them; they didn’t seek me. It just happened. And as the atoms of their life slowly seeped into mine, the molecules of my identity began to mutate.

I changed, not because of anything intellectual or political, but because I grew to love Lee, Bill, Ken and Gail, Don and Hildred, John, Morris, Lorraine, Roland and other African-American friends. And love taught me to look at life through their eyes.

That may be why I’ve never been able to connect with political or cultural approaches to race. The polemics of a movement seemed cold and loveless. The voices always sounded more angry than empathetic, and the action more symbolic than functional.

Twenty-five years ago author Stephen Covey described life’s “Circle of Concern” and “Circle of Influence.”[1] I think that perspective is valuable today.

The circle of concern contains things like aging, weather, alien invasions, and a wide range of national and global issues – things we can do nothing about. That circle is fairly new in human history; it was made possible by mass media and it tends to be where experts hang out.

The other circle, influence, holds our family, friends, property, health, work and other nearby arenas. It is the circle wherein our influence can and does make a difference. For most of history, it was the only circle. Home, school, church, courthouse, barbershop; these marked the borders of life and “concerns.”

In recent decades the electromagnet of our contemporary culture (media, politics, religion, entertainment) has pulled us away from the circle of our real-life influence, the place where we actually do unto others, out into the amorphous arena of “concern.”

I have friends who live and work in that circle; I know they live out of true compassion. I don’t disparage them or their efforts. But I also know that concern can be a bully as it converts normal and noble human concern into funding bases. I know from my own years of working in social arenas that experts tend to design solutions and then parachute them into neighborhoods, without any real engagement with those who actually live with the problems. That’s because the visible objects of the programs are not the real clients; the funders are.

Using the conditions of some to leverage power or funding from others is a cruel hoax. And it happens every day.

A long-time and highly-respected Washington journalist once told me that Washington had become, within his years there, a city obsessed by issues rather than one focused on solving problems. Issues raise money and build careers. That’s why that system can never solve anything.

An “issue” orientation to race only seems to produce voices in a chorus chant, “Treyvon Martin! Paula Deen! Donald Sterling!” It’s an endless loop.

It seems to me that too many of us abandoned our circle of influence; we lost eye contact with those around us, believing that the circle of concern was the proper arena for “progress.” Maybe its now time for us to walk away from “concern” and return to the arena of hard work.

What if, instead of considering racism as an “issue,” and the property of experts, we considered it for what it really is – a problem? Seeing it that way might release us to work on it with practical and relational tactics. Perhaps we could bring it back to our circle of influence where it could be a focus of networking, collaboration, strategic thinking, seeking favor, rewarding goodwill, and, yes, love.

I believe that there, in that circle, away from the experts, the most perfect social law of all time – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – would operate more freely and be infinitely more effective.

What people do to others is what matters.


[1] Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon and Schuster, 1989) pages 81-86.


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