Serving Door County with an Artist’s Soul

At a wonderful celebration last week, a few hundred people gathered to join the Door County Community Foundation in celebrating Nancy and Bob Davis as the 2015 Philanthropists of the Year.

As longtime seasonal Door County residents, this remarkably generous couple decided 20 years ago to make Ephraim their year-round home, both in mind and body. Their quiet but effective leadership has set an example for our community. The Davises have generously shared of their wisdom, resources and friendship with the Ephraim Yacht Club, The Clearing, The Ridges Sanctuary, the Peninsula School of Art, the Door County Land Trust, and many other organizations. They neither demand the stage nor claim the spotlight, but their persistent idealism serves as an inspiration to us all.

To paraphrase noted author and philosopher Peter Block, if the artist is one who captures the nuance of experience, then community building requires us all to become artists. Building community requires us to treat as important the human connections that bind people together. We need to strengthen what Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam calls “social capital” so that we can work collectively for the common good.

In many ways, the Davises, like all of the previous Philanthropists of the Year, have at their very core, the soul of an artist. They are idealists who pursue a world the way they think it ought to be. Sadly, our culture is not organized to support the idealists of the world. Our society is organized to reinforce transactional behavior. If I do this, I get that.

Block has written extensively about this “what’s in it for me” mentality. He argues that our society has developed a socially acceptable cynicism. Too often to be called an idealist is really an indictment. It’s an accusation that there is a flaw in your perception. It’s an insult meaning that you unable, or unwilling, to see the world as it really is.

We weren’t born this way. There was a time in each of our lives when we reached for the sun and the moon and the stars – and we believed that we might actually touch them. But cynicism has a powerful draw because it has experience on its side. As Block notes, we all have our wounds, our sad tales of idealism gone unrewarded, or even punished. Cynicism is the safe ground because it is the ultimate defense against life’s disappointments.

The socially acceptable cynic cannot understand why a person would commit themselves to a larger cause without the promise of a corresponding reward. In this view of the world, we’ve put our commitment up for barter. Because if my commitment is conditional based upon your response, then it never really was a commitment. It was a deal.

Our society likes to say that “virtue is its own reward,” but as Block notes, virtue doesn’t do very well if we define life as the economic pursuit of all that is practical and immediately useful. With virtue’s retreat, generosity, sacrifice and faith are lost. The possibility that people will voluntarily care for the larger community vanishes.

Thus, instead of seeing that we are part of the cause, we only know that we are immersed in the problem. We conclude that it is inherent in people’s nature to expect compensation for every action. Hence, we do the same and retreat from the larger community.

Then the cynic’s prophecy is finally complete.

Yet there is an alternative to what Block calls a “barter model of existence.” There are sources of motivation besides a negotiated exchange. We’ve all seen it.

From the person who’s nearly as busy in retirement as they were during their career, because of how much they volunteer. To the teacher who stays after school on their own time to work with a struggling student. To the nonprofit employee who foregoes the greater financial rewards of the for-profit world because they feel compelled to work for charity. To the men and women who have heard a spiritual calling and have chosen a religious path.

There are people in our world who choose their work not because of the material rewards, but simply because they feel compelled to do so.

That’s why the Community Foundation honored Nancy and Bob Davis. Our community needs more people like them. We celebrate and hold up as an example those with an enduring idealism, and an abiding faith, that the society in which we live can be brighter and better if we work together to build community.

Philosophers like Block refer to this as having an artist’s soul. The theologians would say that this is a calling. We might use different words to describe it, but we all viscerally know, that Door County is so much the brighter because of great philanthropists like the Davises.

We need to nurture our own artist’s soul. We must listen to our own calling.

The Community Foundation celebrated Nancy and Bob Davis. Yet if we truly want to honor them, then we should go forth and emulate them. They are our inspiration.

Bret Bicoy is President & CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected].