Balint: Wisdom of the Sisterhood

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There's a photograph I cherish. It's a shot of me sitting in a lawn chair at a family picnic talking with a relative; she's a nun with the Little Sisters of the Poor. I'm sporting a Mohawk and wearing an old sweatshirt and sunglasses. The Sister sits in her simple white linen habit and leans in to chat with me. We both look completely at ease, enjoying each other's company, and totally unaware of the incongruous tableau we've created. I think about this photo a great deal as I ponder the values that help me with difficult work in the legislature.

Born in Albany, N.Y., in the 1940s, this woman has lived in India her entire adult life, working with the poor, the elderly, and the destitute. She lost her upstate New York accent decades ago and now speaks either in Hindi or in the thickly accented English of the Indian subcontinent.

Although she is a nun, she's still the same scrappy kid she always was. She's fought malaria more times than the most stalwart of explorers, and even cobras can't get the best of her. She has spent years in the service of God and the poor, and she once articulated to me the wisdom she's gained through this incredible experience. She distilled her half century of sacrifice, work, and prayer into three key concepts: Show up on time, do good work, and be kind.

I tried to hold the Sister's wisdom in my heart and head as I faced a very contentious vote in the Senate last week: the Energy Bill or S. 230. Fellow Windham County Senator Jeanette White and I were inundated with calls, emails and other missives related to this bill. Some constituents knew some of the relevant details of the bill, others clearly had not read any of the legislation. A few admitted they didn't even know the topic of the bill, but had been urged by an advocacy organization to contact us. Many constituents (on many sides of the issues) urged us not to compromise.

We knew that numerous amendments would be introduced, so we prepared ourselves for a hectic day. But I was not prepared for the intense lobbying. One lobbyist approached me almost as soon as I set foot in the building; another before I'd hung my coat up in my committee room, and still another pounced as I grabbed my morning coffee in the cafeteria. The barrage continued until the afternoon's vote. All spoke with the utmost urgency; all wanted to know the vote count before we got out on the Senate floor. None wanted compromise.

Legislative work frequently requires compromise. Every proposed law has consequences, and we rely on our constituents and their lobbyists to help us anticipate as many consequences as possible. But, as a citizen legislature, we simply do not have enough time, nor do we have the staff required to appropriately examine critical issues.

This makes me exceedingly uncomfortable. Trained as historian, I relish the footnotes and the details. I want to comprehend both the major issues and the relevant specifics. However, in focusing on one issue or major piece of legislation, I risk making mistakes on other important issues.

Our legislative system limits my ability to do my very best work. And in the push-and-pull of passing any bill, some folks undoubtedly feel let down, disappointed and frustrated. Others get a lot of what they want but still feel angry; very few feel satisfaction. Rather than attempt to please everyone, I strive instead to show up on time, do good work, and be kind.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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