I recently heard an interview with Nobel laureate and novelist Toni Morrison. In responding to a question on what to do about racism, she responded, and here I paraphrase: “Those who can feel tall only while forcing others to kneel have a problem.”

One point of this powerfully insightful analogy is that those who struggle courageously while on their knees in fact command the moral high ground. Her more subtle and important point, however, is that to “solve” racism, we shouldn’t look primarily to the victim but to the perpetrator.

“Don’t expect me to have all the answers about racism, mister handsome, white TV interviewer guy,” she is in effect saying. “Look in the mirror. You’re the one descended from a line of people who have been standing for 300 years. I’m descended from a line of people who are still struggling to get to their feet in a world largely created certainly still dominated by you.”

In reflecting on this magnificent woman’s insight, it occurred to me that it applies just as well to all manner of social change. If those who are comfortable will accept change only when it leaves them with the same lives tomorrow that they have today, then change can occur only in paroxysms of conflict, often with catastrophic consequences for all.

Maine, and indeed our country as a whole, faces severe challenges in virtually every direction we look. Our demographic structure is unbalanced and unsustainable. Our educational institutions are rigid, self-absorbed and ill-suited both to transmitting the personal and social values on which an open, democratic society depends and to providing our children and our workers the lifelong learning they require to thrive in a globally competitive world.

Our system of health care keeps patients and providers on their knees before employers, insurance companies and government agencies.

Our system of public finance is becoming ever narrower and more volatile as our elected officials struggle to find ways to pay for what we need in the face of lobbyists fighting to preserve the ever growing list of exemptions, exceptions and credits that have succeeded both in taking more transactions and more income off the table than remain available to tax and in making the minority that do remain virtually impossible to understand.

We cannot continue to demand that our elected officials “solve” these problems while forever adding the caveat, “but don’t do anything that might inconvenience my settled life, that might reduce my exemptions, that might bring more people ‘from away,’ that might reduce the frequency or proximity of services I require.”

If we are to exist as a community, we must act as a community, acknowledge that we are connected, that a problem for one of us is a problem for all of us and that many of us will have to have to adjust our footing, perhaps even reach down, if we all are to stand tall.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]