I was impressed with the mayor of Dallas proclaiming that a spike in the crime rate happened on his watch and, therefore, he was taking responsibility for it. I would be prone to argue that his willingness to fall on the sword is unnecessary unless he is claiming perpetrator status. As I said recently, three 100-year floods have happened in sequential years before. Some things are not totally within your sphere of influence. I also doubt that he, the city manager or the police chief would be solely responsibility for a one-year drop in the crime statistics. A longer trend, up or down, would be a different story.
However, this blog is not about that particular press conference in Dallas. The purpose is a tip of my hat for the condition that exists when any leader, manager, supervisor or even an individual employee feels that special “on my watch” responsibility. It is the way most of us deal with someone’s safety or well-being if they come into our life while we are “on watch.” It is a privileged status when we are put in charge of caring for someone else, especially when the circumference of our circle of care is quite large.
The City of Grapevine had men stand watch over the small town at night from the early 1900s into the 1950s. There is an eight-foot, six-hundred pound statue on top of city hall honoring those men. The icon is the Watchman, holding a lantern. I love it! It is bold and speaks volumes about security. But the outward appearance doesn’t interest me as much as the internal drive and calling to be a person taking the responsibilities of the shepherd.
Linda and I were part of a team of teachers who took high school students to Europe each year during winter break for about a decade through the 1990s. It was a very popular program. At its peak we had 104 people traveling each year, two bus loads. We would have 104 signed up again within 30 days of returning from a trip even though the destinations for the following year were still undecided.
Our leader, Dianah, had a rule. It was to say Yes to the students in every way possible. That meant to let a small group go walking after returning to our hotel. Or to go across the street to a cafe for coffee. But one of us would go with them. I can’t begin to tell you the joyful burden it was to watch over our assigned teenagers. We had to keep all of their medicines. I have fond memories of handing out meds at the assigned times, especially to one student with a heart condition. How simple. How important. And how fulfilling it was for me to be taking care of people on our watch. I was on high alert for 11-12 days and did not rest easy until the wheels of the airplane touched down at DFW at the end. We cherish those days.
This “on my watch” gift is ingrained in almost every local government worker I have ever known. A very close friend and I discussed the burglar bar blog after I wrote it. He has had a heavy influence on me since junior high days. He persuaded me to realize governments can’t be responsible for everybody under every circumstance. I forget that point sometimes, and have no argument with the point. He’s dead right.
Yet I am conflicted because I know that when a life is lost, fire and police personnel stuggle to not take it personally. Even though they fully understand something is beyond their control, it doesn’t help the human part inside that really haunts them. It happened on their watch. Could it have been prevented? The answer is almost always Yes. Could I have prevented it? The answer is almost always No. But that internal calling to keep people safe is hard to satisfy at times even though it won’t be long, maybe the same day, when they have transformed another threat into a safe situation by their presence and actions. You shake off saving a life as duty. Losing a life is personal.
The calling is powerful. It starts with the servant magnet pulling them to be in a particular line of service, whether teacher or a public safety staffer. But it goes deep, very deep for others as well. It’s real for just about everybody who cares and believes without a doubt that they are called to be doing what they are doing. If you are in charge of the city streets, you take it very personally when heavy equipment is tearing up the street with their weight or spikes. If there is a wreck that knocks down light poles, there is both a duty to get it fixed quickly and a frustration that “their” assets got damaged.
If ballfields get destroyed by dirt bikes or weather, there are parks people who take it hard after working so diligently to have fields mowed, groomed and ready for play. Those folks are often invisible like the janitor story yesterday. They are probably sitting off to the side somewhere in pickups or golf carts waiting for games to end so they can pick up litter left behind. They are also watching the weather, relying on the lightening detectors to warn parents and players. I would expect that some are saying prayers that nobody gets hurt on their watch – even if there is nothing they could do to prevent some injuries. And can you imagine the relief that a ton of school and public safety officials feel when a football game is over, the stands are emptied and the parking lots with no cars without there being an incident?
If parents upheld their duty to be on watch and remain on watch over their kids, a ton of municipal services could be less riskier and even reduced in some cases. Parents can say Yes to many, many requests from their children, and should. But ask our son Kenneth how many times he heard “not on my watch, not under my roof or not on my dollar” when growing up.
So, I’m a conflicted person, and I admit it. The deal is, being a caring public official, whether elected or appointed, makes it hard to say No. But it takes a boldness and a level of discernment that is rarely found in most of us. I am often reminded of the powerful words of the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to changes the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
God bless those standing watch. And in some form or fashion, that’s all of us. Every single one of us. LFM