In our obsession with the individual we’ve lost sight of a little thing called the common good and what it means to work for the common good. Here in the West we live in an individualistic culture. If, like me, you grew up in the United States then you probably heard a lot about rugged individualism as the highest ideal. Phrases like personal responsibility get thrown around a lot and we’re obsessed with our personal, individual rights.
In days long gone we were born, lived, and died in a very small area. We knew everyone around us and we were utterly dependent on one another for survival. No one needed to talk about “the common good” because it was simply a way of life. But as the world changed, and we became more mobile, and less obviously reliant on one another (more on that later) the emphasis on the good of the community faded as well.
But our supposed independence is really an illusion. There is no such thing as a “self made man/woman,” or someone who “built it themselves.” We survive still because of our communities, because of an increasingly complicated and far flung web of connections. We lose sight of that fact at our peril, and I think we do damage to our souls when we cut ourselves off from the good of the whole.
Our actions impact others, and their actions impact us as well. There’s simply no way around that. If you haven’t heard of the tragedy of the commons TED has a great (short) educational video that explains the basics. What it boils down to is this: when we prioritize our own good over that of the whole we eventually harm ourselves and everyone else.
All the great religious traditions I can think of (and I’m a religion nerd, so it’s a pretty good number) emphasize our interconnectedness and dependence on one another. My tradition (which is Christian) says that we are all children of God, siblings. But we then go a step beyond, saying that all Christians (some might say all people) are members of the Body of Christ. We’re all in this view cells in one body. Such a theological perspective makes individualism madness. A single cell simply cannot survive without the rest. A cell that tries to act for its own sake and ignore the good of the whole becomes cancer.
One name for this idea of human connection is ubuntu. The word is Zulu and encompasses that which makes us human, namely compassion and connection to one another. Ubuntu ties our humanity to our connection to one another. We are not fully human without one another.
It’s Dangerous To Go Alone
Being alone isn’t good for us. And one of the side effects of the decline in religious participation and rise in the independent spiritual movement is that the common good and our need for connection has often been forgotten. We spend so much time discovering ourselves we forget that we’re part of a larger whole, and that our whole selves need other people.
I believe it’s time we reclaimed our work for the common good as a virtue. At its most basic working for the common good could be called “enlightened self interest.” After all, in the long term we all do better when we all do better. But frankly that’s a piss poor reason to do anything. If the only reason we ever make a decision is because it will benefit us directly then we haven’t grown or matured much past toddlers.
Spirituality as Connection
A Jewish rabbi in the first century (named Jesus) was once asked how someone could obtain eternal life. He responded that the questioner (who was also Jewish) should obey the laws that God had given the Jewish people as a guide for a good life. The questioner (a rich man) insisted he was already doing that, but he felt the need to do more. This is where it gets interesting. Translations into English often fall short because in Greek Jesus looks at the man, loves him, and because he loves him he tells him to sell all that they had and give the money to the poor.
If he loved the dude shouldn’t he have told him he was good and sent him on his way?
Nope, instead he loves the rich man and so he tells him to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor.
Jesus wouldn’t be the first (or last) spiritual teacher to insist that the common good (caring for others instead of just our own selfish interest) is somehow good for us, something we need. When you love someone you want the best for them. The implication is that for the rich man to continue to horde wealth for himself was actually harmful to his own life, he needed to look outside his own needs.
No Mean Feat
Here’s the thing, in that story above the rich man went away grieving. We don’t know if he ever did as Jesus had suggested he do, but we can be damn sure that if he did it was hard. The easy thing is to focus on ourselves. The path of least resistance is to make choices that keep us happy in the short term. We fulfill our basic animal desires for pleasure and comfort. What is harder, what is an actual discipline is looking past our short term comfort and making choices that benefit ourselves and others over the long haul.
Here’s an example (a hot button one). Right now in the United States there is a debate raging (yet again) about guns. The arguments against further restricting access to high powered weapons seem to all fall into one of two camps: personal rights at all costs, or fatalistic inertia. The first boils down to: we have individual rights to own weapons, and that is the highest good. The second: the bad guys will probably find a way to get guns even if we change our current rules, so we might as well do nothing.
The second issue is one of a society that has given up on growth, health and change. (And that’s a whole other issue.) But the first is what we’re talking about here: the absolutely highest value must be in individual freedoms, not our corporate responsibility for one another. If you know me, you probably know what’s coming next: I call bullshit. Such an emphasis comes out of a fear response, an instinctive lizard brain belief that we are always in danger.
Rewiring Our Lizard Brain
Our lizard brain helped us survive for thousands of years, but today it’s as much a liability as it is a help. To grow into spiritually mature creatures we have to get past our knee jerk survival instincts. The lizard brain tells us that there is never enough. It tells us we’re not safe. It insists on uniformity and the familiar because in it’s primordial world anything else is a threat. (Hi racism!)
We don’t live in that world anymore, we haven’t actually for a very long time. But our biology doesn’t know that. Our hearts and souls do know it, or at least they can learn. It’s time to rewire our lizard brain, and train ourselves out of a survival, me first, mindset.
If you have never consciously thought about any of this before it’s likely to feel very strange. Start small. I like to think the rich man went off and thought about it, and then started down the road Jesus had laid out. He probably didn’t sell everything he owned at once. But maybe he went and raised the wages of his workers to a living wage. Maybe he sold his country home and used the funds to build an orphanage. Maybe he changed his hiring practices to employ widows and orphans. Maybe eventually he downsized his home and sold his business to his employees.
Start where you are. Think about those already in your life who maybe don’t always come first. Do you have a pet who waits in their crate with their legs crossed while you make your coffee in the morning before taking them out? Change it up, put their needs before your desire. Take them out, and then make your coffee. I know that seems incredibly small but living into a virtue is about rewiring our brains, it’s about building habits. Habits start small, they start with repeated action and eventually they become automatic.
Maybe you start by letting our pets out before coffee. Maybe next you make your spouse breakfast in the morning instead of spending 30 minutes before work watching your favorite TV show. But as you intentionally work for the other you’ll find yourself making choices that raise the common good more easily. Eventually perhaps you shut down your corporate bank account and move to a local credit union that prioritizes micro loans to raise people out of poverty. Maybe you leave your super entertaining mega church that has been awesome for you and join a little community that’s focus is serving others (not converting them, serving them).
Maybe you vote for things that won’t benefit you at all in the short term (or ever) but will raise up the lives of those currently harmed by income inequality, racism, sexism, or other social ills.
I can’t know what your journey looks like. But I do know the path. It is one where we think less of ourselves and more of the good of the whole.
What The Common Good Isn’t
Before you go off though, here’s what this isn’t about. This is not about becoming a martyr. There is a difference between caring for yourself and being selfish. My tradition teaches that we are to love others as we love ourselves. This implies that we need to love ourselves. When we act selfishly, when for example we take more fish than is sustainable from the village pond (see the TED talk above if you haven’t) we aren’t really loving ourselves. We’re actually cheating ourselves in the long term with our greed and fear of scarcity.
Don’t cheat yourself.
Make the Change
So, here’s the thing. Reading this article won’t make the world a better place. It won’t make you more spiritually mature. It won’t grow you, or build a world of justice and love. You have to do those things. And I get it, there are a thousand things clamoring for your attention. It is so easy to lose sight of what matters most and just go through life on auto pilot. To close this tab and go on with your day with good intentions that get lost in the chaos of life.
So I’m going to encourage you again to download the planning tool I use to keep me on track for my spiritual, emotional, and relationship growth. It’s customizable so you can write right onto it your tiny steps toward building up the common good. You can use it to stay on track, and to remind yourself of where you want to end up.