People have it easy on social media: they are always right. Sitting at home in their pajamas or underwear, drinking a beer — or two, or three — they can opine on any topic and be impressed with their own smarts. They can shoot down any opposing opinion with a few deft keystrokes. It’s not about convincing anyone — it’s just about making their point.
How different an experience it is to be a member of a committee, to engage with others in a regulated exchange of ideas and opinions with the express aim of coming to a consensus. No matter how burningly bright a concept you have, you must wait and listen to others. Then, perhaps, your great idea must adjust to someone else’s great idea, and a whole new concept — or a highly modified version of yours — is created.
Robert’s Rules of Order is quaint but effective in enabling groups of people to get things done in an equitable manner. If you make a motion, it must have a second before it can even be discussed. If you raise a flag and no one salutes, you must take it down — without attitude. No amount of shouting, no personal invective, no clever comment can change that fact. And if you listen to another person’s perspective, it can, surprisingly, often inform your own. If you are known as a listener, you will be listened to.
What a minor miracle a committee is. And in our towns there are dozens of them. In my time here, I have served on at least a half dozen, one of them a regulatory commission that gives and denies permission to people who want to change things. Progress is slow-to-nonexistent. There must be give and take. We are not talking about the Mayflower Compact here, or the Magna Carta, or issues of war and peace, but the simple parameters of our existence. Much of the quality of life in our towns is determined by myriad decisions, hammered out over hours of meetings by ordinary folks like you and me. Issues of zoning, planning, historic preservation, conservation, and licensing come down to people in a room (or now, digitally connected) creating consensus.
Being a responsible committee member is like being in a marriage: you have to compromise. You can’t just walk away. (Well, you can, but that is a topic for another day.) This is how progress inches forward. This is how our towns are run. The annual town meeting is certainly important, but it is the tip of the iceberg: the real work is done by all those committees leading up to it.
It is not always fun to be on a committee. It can be extremely frustrating. If you volunteered to become a member, you probably have a particular interest in its jurisdiction. You probably have an emotional investment in the outcome of its decision-making. But emotion is like fire: necessary up to a point, destructive thereafter.
In my time, I have worked with some very competent, very qualified people who were just not committee-oriented. “My way or the highway” was their position. They just couldn’t learn that a difference of opinion need not be an argument.
In fact, I can say from experience that you don’t really know somebody until the two of you don’t see eye to eye. You may agree on the overall goal but differ on the means to get there. Strategies and styles vary. Some are more adventurous, others more pragmatic; some see things in pinpoint, others in various contexts.
It is the people on our committees who make things happen — or not happen — and they do it by working together. They do it neither for power nor for glory but for their vision of the greater good. They are the unsung heroes of our towns. I salute them. Meeting adjourned.