The heroism of federal work.

Synonyms:bravery, braveness, courage, courageousness, valor, valiance, intrepidity, intrepidness, boldness, daring, audacity, audaciousness, fearlessness, doughtiness, dauntlessness, pluck, indomitability, stout-heartedness, lionheartedness; backbone, spine, spirit, fortitude, mettle, gallantry, chivalry.

Look up “heroism” online or in a dictionary. Chances are you’ll be surprised. You’ll struggle to find an actual definition. Instead, you’ll find the word used in a short sentence; then an immediate segue to a string of synonyms such as that above. 

The word has that kind of singular majesty. We can’t define heroism so much as we know it when we see it.

Which brings us to the present moment in history, and The. Great. Civics. Lesson. The totally unwarranted federal shutdown, the top-down, enforced furloughs, and the requirement that hundreds of thousands of workers perform their duties without pay – the turmoil on Capitol Hill and at the other end of the Mall – have spawned linear miles of newsprint, jillions of tweets and thousands of posts on social media. Much of the focus has been on social disruption: fundamental federal services barely creaking along instead of running smoothly, or the personal suffering inflicted on federal workers as they comb through food banks and depend upon other forms of handout from friends and neighbors to house and clothe their families, even to use public transportation. Shutdown coverage centered early on federal employees taking on part-time jobs, struggling to access or finding themselves denied unemployment benefits, etc.; plutocratic leaders attempting – unsuccessfully – to identify with the workers’ financial plight.

 Over the past several days news coverage is now shifting. To the underlying forces maintaining such a prolonged Congressional-White House impasse. And parallel talk of brain drain. Federal workers beginning to reassess their careers, reluctantly starting to think the unthinkable – walking away from years of dedicated service and making their skills available to the private-sector, in an effort to care for their families. Federal employees – in TSA, the FBI, NWS, and myriad other agencies – are being forced to make life-changing decisions.

Where’s the good in the ashes and ruins of this tragedy? We have yet to reach the end. In the short term, things will probably (may well?) get worse before they get better. But it’s not too early to see the shape of a turnaround. 

With high probability, the long-term outlook is that:

  • Public appreciation for the importance and value of government services, including regulatory protections, scientific research and innovation, and more will revive.
  • The nation will rethink negative stereotypes about federal workers (in many respects, not that much different from racial or gender bias).
  • The public will register its distaste for leaders who attempt to hold federal workers and our system of government hostage to self-serving personal interests
  • Those disaffected public employees entering the private sector will bring new vigor and integrity to ideas of corporate social responsibility.
  • Early-career professionals – youth entering the job market for the first time, looking for a cause greater than themselves – will see the challenge of civil service in a new light, sharing much in common with the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, but longer-term. They’ll fill any gap left by retiring federal workers.

Don’t look for any of this in the immediate or even intermediate term, but that’s where the present upheaval is taking us.

Federal workers! Thank you!…for forecasting the weather, shepherding along those tax returns, making national parks available, monitoring food safety, guarding the coasts, preventing crime, and so much more – even when it means extended work without pay or being forcibly furloughed. Thank you for the great civics lesson now underway, at such considerable personal sacrifice to yourselves. You embody all those great adjectives that started off this discussion. Take a moment to reflect on them today. Embrace them. Own them.

You’re heroes.

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