Why? and Why not? Two short questions. But they are challenging questions. Questions that lead to systemic change.
It is said that Steve Jobs favorite questions were Why? and Why not? These questions help us understand Vincent… and Louise and Frederic, and so many other Vincentians… who have brought about systemic change.
First, let’s look at Steve Jobs and Vincent. Who were they and what systems did they change?
They were both talented youths but both needed to mature quite a bit. Vincent was not always a saint. In fact, in his younger years, he was a rather ambitious climber in many ways. He appeared at times to be embarrassed by his lowly origins. Jobs, well, he did drugs, was involved in some questionable relationships, etc.
Both were passionate. Steve was passionate about technology that was beautiful, simple and useful. Vincent was passionate to bring “good news” to those who were on the peripheries.
They were both people who dreamt big even at the end of their lives.
At first, Vincent had a very narrow vision of a secure life. But by the end of an amazing life he is portrayed in the award winning film, Monsieur Vincent, as thinking about the “more” he could have done.
In the moments before his death Steve Jobs, according to his sister, looked for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them. His final words were: OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW. He certainly saw a dream wider than he imagined.
What systems did they change?
Yet they were both paradigm shifters who changed basic assumptions and ways of relating to their worlds.
We all know the famous quote from a Bishop at Vincent’s death about how Vincent changed the face of France. France was challenged to think differently about people who were poor and human rights.
We all know how Steve Jobs changed entire industries – personal computing, the music industry, mobile telephone and tablet computing, retail stores and digital publishing.
How did they do it?
Back to Steve Job’s two questions.
If there was ever anyone who asked Why? and Why not? it was Vincent.
Today, there is much talk of systems thinking, thinking in terms of a bigger picture.
Vincent was not systems thinker – but he was a systems doer.
For Vincent it was always about what more needs to be done. What is wrong with this picture I see? What is the NEXT thing that needs to be done.
1. There was a family in need of food. After requesting his parishioners to help they had too much for one day and not enough for the week. Why must this family have too much one day and not enough the next?
He asked, Why can’t we organize this better? What can be done?
And so was born the Ladies of Charity – the oldest functioning organization of lay women in the church
2. When he saw that the generous ladies of wealth found menial tasks of carrying soup to the poor too onerous, he responded to young girls from among the poor who offered to take on that work. Thus was born the Daughters of Charity. But there was a problem when they wanted to commit themselves by vows.
He asked, Why must dedicated women be confined to convents? What can be done?
The Church and society expected religious women to wear special habits and live safely tucked away in convents. Vincent in effect asked why women were not allowed to minister and found a way around the legal structures of the day.
3. He found a parish in which people were dying without the sacraments and clergy who had no sense of the spiritual needs of their people.
He asked, Why are people not being fed spiritually. What can be done?
That started him on a lifetime in which he changed the formation of the clergy. First, he gathered the more interested clergy into weekly meetings called the Tuesday conferences. When that was not enough he took seriously the Council of Trent’s recommendation that there be seminaries to form priests. From there it was not surprising that Bishops and Royalty asked his advice before looking for good clergy.
If you look closely at all the heroes and heroines in the Vincentian Family you will recognize a pattern. The all asked two questions… Why? What can be done?
It is amazing what we can learn and do when we ask challenging questions.
How about these challenging questions…
- Am I asking questions?
- Am I asking the right questions?
This reflection is a variation of an earlier reflection on Vincentians Making a Dent in the Universe.