Every Sunday, my UU congregation choruses a shared promise to “honor ourselves, our relationships, and each other with dignity, respect and compassion, always maintaining the common good.” And every Sunday as we speak those words, I look into the many, varied and well-loved faces of my fellow parishioners with appreciation and a sense of community I find in few other places, and nowhere as richly as there. I’ve been saying those words for ten years now, and yet it only recently occurred to me that we were saying “common good”, and not “greater good,” as I’d been interpreting the words.
We hear about the Greater Good a lot. There’s a lovely online magazine by that name, full of thought provoking news and research about altruism and compassion, and a Greater Good Network for charity giving. And a recent documentary film with that title examines the debate about vaccinations. The phrase, “the greater good” is invoked by everyone from religious leaders to politicians and has echoed from the dawn of philosophy in Aristotle’s writings:
“And those things also are greater goods which men desire more earnestly to bring about for themselves or for their friends, whereas those things which they least desire to bring about are greater evils. “
To Karl Marx’s famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) contention that “History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy.” — Marx, Letter to His Father (1837)
In ethics, the “greater good” is housed under the theory of “Utilitarianism”, which says that the right course of action is always the one that maximizes the overall good for the greatest number of people. English philosopher Jeremy Benthem called it “the greatest happiness or greatest felicity principle.” UUs recount a long religious and political history of working for the greater good , from Susan B. Anthony to Linus Pauling and others, from marching with Dr. Martin Luther King to Occupying Wall Street.
Yet our church’s shared covenant clearly and intentionally calls us to maintain “the common good,” not the “greater good. While the choice of phrasing sounds almost pedestrian beside the likes of Aristotle, Marx, and MLK, I believe the choice of words was quite intentional. When I think about it, maintaining the common good makes enormous good sense; for we cannot serve a greater good without first finding the solid ground of our shared common good.
The greater good can seem an ethereal thing, unattainable, or at perhaps idealistic at best, like Peace on Earth. We all want it, but some people’s peace seems dependent on other peoples’ annihilation. The common good, though – that seems more accessible. Things like clean water, a safe environment, freedom of expression and access to knowledge should be things we can all appreciate and value.
The “common good” can vary by community. Ducks Unlimited seeks to “conserve, restore, and manage wetlands and associated habitats for North America’s waterfowl,” largely for the purposes of hunting those waterfowl. The National Audubon Society also seeks “To conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity,” largely for the purposes of enjoying birds. hile the two groups may be somewhat at odds in certain areas of policy and philosophy, they both share a commitment to the common good of managed public lands where people can enjoy healthy populations of birds – whether hunting them or photographing them, and wild spaces for people to enjoy in the company of wildlife. Both groups often support similar conservation measures, and can be part of important alliances in the service of protecting ecosystems.
Finding the places where needs and goals intersect can be a powerful and enduring way to bring people and ideas together. Which is precisely why some groups go to great lengths to drive wedges between potential social allies. Despite our diverse Technicolor world, our vision of it is often quite black & white, thanks to an abundance of shallow, sensationalist media where positions are distilled to two widely, and often wildly, opposing views, and individuals with differing ideas and opinions are flattened into single dimensional caricatures.
Think about current events and some of the popular commentary about them. Glenn Beck contends that Occupy Wall Street is “a Marxist revolution that is global in its nature.” Martin Keeley called global warming “ a scam, perpetrated by scientists with vested interests, but in need of crash courses in geology, logic and the philosophy of science.” And the endless mudslinging by politicians determined to reduce each other into subhuman, non-people in the eyes of the electorate, like Rick Perry suggesting Mitt Romney isn’t a “competent Christian” because he’s a Mormon.
The constant exposure to over-simplified assessments of people and ideas erodes our ability to thoughtfully consider all the facts of a matter and to make informed and intelligent decisions about them. The more we buy into false arguments about issues and accept opinions as facts, the more fractured we’re in danger of becoming as a society, in our communities and even within our families.
In this great short video by National Geographic, the “typical human” is a bit oversimplified but for the purposes of making an important point – that most of humanity is not what we see here in the U.S.. In fact, based on sheer numbers, the most typical human, says NatGeo, is a 28 year old Han Chinese man, of whom there are 9 million in the world! But as National Geographic points out, “Typical is always relative.”
We all need water, but as the video points out, we use it very differently. In the U.S., on average, we each use over a hundred gallons of water daily. In Ethiopia, people use 2.5 gallons daily, and women can spend 8 hours collecting it. Our choices make a big difference, the video informs us, when multiplied by 7 billion. So does finding the global common good among so vast a human family.
Identifying the common good beyond our immediate families and neighborhoods, requires broadening our view and honestly assessing where we stand in the bigger picture, in the wider field of view, and commensurately opens us up to new possibilities and new solutions. More important, honoring that common good empowers us to work together towards a safe, healthy and fulfilling future in the service of our shared humanity, which is the true common ground on which we stand.
This past weekend, Audubon Hog Island Camp, on Muscongus Bay in Maine – one of the most wonderful, successful, and, to our family, personally enriching and warmly memorable, environmental education facilities in America – celebrated its 75th anniversary. In the summer of 2007, my middle daughter, then 17, was awarded an Audubon Society Scholarship to a Hog Island residential camp. Always an outdoorsy child but only cautiously adventurous, Hog Island was her first – and only – “sleep away” camp. For ten days, she would bunk with other high schoolers from around the country and learn about birds, and local ecology.
For those ten days, the rest of us journeyed around coastal Maine, touring lighthouses, geocaching in fragrant balsam forests,
exploring Acadia National Park, and a variety of scenic and historical areas. We fell in love with Maine. Our daughter fell in love with birds. We all fell in love with Hog Island.
Our daughter came back confident, excited, and an avid birder. She started a blog – Earthbird: Diary of a Teenage Birder- which
eventually became the diary of a college birder. She wrote an article for the Audubon Society about her experience at Hog Island: Summer Camp Salute , and wrote her college essay about how Hog Island set her on the path to both environmental and self-discovery. She headed to college with fresh focus, new ideas, and a yen for travel that has since taken her to London, Wales and Ireland for a semester, and to Puerto Rico for service learning projects.
This summer, her final summer before she starts her senior year at Eckerd College, where she’s an Environmental Studies and Anthropology major, she interned at Shaver’s Creek , the nature center of Penn State. Among other things, she worked with the Raptor Center there , coming full circle on her journey from fledgling birder to bird of prey handler. Midway through the summer, she journeyed to Tuscson, AZ to join 79 other students from around the nation as a Udall Scholar, which recognizes young leaders in environmental fields.
As much as all of this is a tribute to my daughter’s own drive, curiosity and interest in the world around her, it is equally a tribute to the place that set her mind afire in first place. On Hog Island, my daughter walked in the footsteps of some of the nation’s leading environmentalists, scientists and naturalists, including Roger Tory Peterson, Rachel Carson and Dr. Stephen Kress. Since 1936, campers have experienced the transformative beauty, abundant wildlife and deep serenity of Muscongus Bay under the studied guidance of teachers like Peterson and renowned birder Kenn Kaufman, who turned my daughter’s eyes heavenward.
Environmental education in the classroom is one thing. Experiencing the living wonders of a place as rich in beauty and biodiversity as Hog Island, and rich, as well, in the people who understand it and eagerly share its wonders with others, is something else entirely.
Author Scott Weidensau said of Hog Island, “Hog Island takes hold of you. There are many beautiful places, but this one will change your life.“
Our daughter would probably agree. I know we certainly do! Happy Birthday, Hog Island!
I found it a love note of stunningly beautiful and universal proportions.
I believe in the orderly processes of the universe, which hold the planets in their orbits and control the activities of microscopic cells;
I believe in the pervading, impartial forces of nature through which destruction is made constructive;
I believe in the ever-changing beauty of the natural world, which brings joy and inspiration to many people;
I believe in the profound lessons which nature teaches: lessons of struggle and adaptability, tenacity and purpose, endurance and growth, patience, balance, and the inevitability of cause and effect;
I believe in the hope and faith which nature gives to the observant through predictable, compensatory certainties: light after dark, warmth after cold, peaceful calm after lashing storm, and always the miracle of the sun, the rain, and the seed.
Some might more comfortably replace the word nature with God, and that stirring sense of the greatness of the world in which we lives takes on somewhat different, but equally integral connotations.
“We cannot elevate nature above people,” Edna Mattos, leader of the Citrus County Tea Party Patriots said recently in an interview regarding efforts to expand protection of manatees in Kings Bay in Citrus County, FL. “That’s against the Bible and the Bill of Rights.“
Among the many things Ms. Mattos overlooks or misunderstands, is the fact that “people” and “nature” are inextricably connected. We are nature, the Bible and the Bill of Rights notwithstanding . Where go the manatees goes us.
Ask and it shall be given. Seek and you shall find. Care and you shall be cared for, and find joy and inspiration, healing and restoration, life lessons, hope and faith in the world around us. Neither the Bible nor the Bill of Rights can promise us more than that!
Okay, well, technically, it’s my neighbor’s yard, and specifically, it involves someone else’s home – but this story plays out in National Geographic quality in view of my front yard. It all started about three weeks ago, when I heard what sounded like a bunch of crickets in or near an oak tree by our driveway. I heard it when I took the dog out in the morning, and again when I got the mail in the afternoon, and as I hauled the trash cans back around the house later in the day. It was a continuous cacophony of frenetic chirping.
After trying to zero in on the source of the noise for a couple of days, as I came and went in my driveway, I finally went outside and stood alone under the oak tree, with the sole goal of trying to pinpoint the creatures making the sounds. In the dance of the curious, I craned my neck, cocked my head, cupped my ears, squinted and peered and finally detected a small hole high in a dead branch of my neighbor’s pine tree.
Aha! And just as I began to make the connection between the hole and the sound, a woodpecker lit in gravity-defying verticality along the branch with a grub in its bill, and poked its head inside the hole. A woodpecker nest!
I’ve always been fascinated by the wealth of nature in my suburban Tampa yard. It’s your basic third of an acre St. Augustine spread, but with a healthy complement of oaks, elm, camphor and ligustrum trees, and lots of shrubs and bushes, as well as a lot of neighboring oaks and pines and other trees. I’m saddened when I see those treeless, sterile looking communities that are all pavement and water-sucking sod. Those houses, however big they are, look hot and plain in the glaring sunlight without the framework of trees.
In older neighborhoods like this one, trees shade the streets and yards, and there are plenty of neighborhood bird feeders, in addition to my own. There’s also a landscaped retention pond across the street, and bird baths in our yard, so all the basic Wildlife Habitat essentials are here: shelter, food and water.
Animals utilize these resources in great abundance here. We’ve got tons of insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and a decent complement of small mammals like racoons and opossums, and my outdoorswoman daughter tells us she’s also found evidence of coyotes and bobcats in our neighborhood, too. All this within a couple of miles of busy urban roads and an expressway, providing ample evidence that our suburban communities, while not ecologically ideal, can certainly be made into attractive and sustainable environments for wildlife, as well as for people.
The woodpeckers apparently agree. And for the last couple of weeks, I’ve watched them engage in what would seem to be an absolutely exhausting feeding schedule. I remember the wearying wee hours feedings of my own young, but am fully cognizant of the fact that I didn’t have to run around foraging all day to find food for my constantly squawking fledglings and bring it back one piece at a time. I don’t know how they do it. I would watch for 3o minutes or so , and in that time, the parent woodpecker would fly back and forth to the nest at least a half dozen times, always with one insect in its bill. I wished I could hand up a shopping bag to help!
After some debate, my birder daughter and I finally concluded that these are Hairy woodpeckers ( as opposed to the very similar looking Downy woodpeckers). For the last couple of days, I’ve watched eagerly from the shade of the neighboring oak tree, to see if I could spot one of the babies. The other day, I saw a large fuzzy looking head faintly outlined in the shadows of the nest entrance. And today, I was rewarded with the bold appearance of a nearly fledged young bird. It’s amazing to think there are probably at least one or two more young birds in the nest. How do they fit?! I”m also gratified to see that both parents rear the young – although with feeding schedules like theirs, it would require teamwork.
But what a love note from nature! There’s something deeply heartwarming and reassuring in watching birds nest and raise young, providing a basic affirmation of life in a world where death and sadness sometimes seem more the rule than the exception. And perhaps that may be the case – perhaps these birds are the exception to the rules of life.
But I don’t think so. We won’t rule the planet forever – we can barely hang on to it now. Wars and politics and the people behind them will come and go, but animals will carry on forever the instinctual and beautiful processes of their own lives, however they are able, without regard to us, in the universe of their own existence. They find work-arounds to the inconvenience of our existence, using what they can, disregarding the rest, unfettered by petty distractions and empty vanities, and attending to their own with unflinching devotion.
Maybe the lesson in the woodpeckers’ love note is that we should do the same.
“...pursue the things that will empower you. Pursue knowledge. Be relentlessly curious…” – Chris Anderson
“…it’s becoming urgent for the world to start to see a compelling alternative vision.” Anderson told students. ” Probably it’s going to come down to re-imagining what a city can be, and making it so wonderful, that few people would want to live anywhere else. If there are to be 10 billion of us, we will have to, for the most part, live close to each other — if only to give the rest of nature a chance. Indeed more than half the world already lives in cities and the best of them offer so much to the world : richer culture, a greater sense of community, a far lower carbon footprint per person - and the collision of ideas that nurtures innovation. And the future cities you will help create need not feel claustrophobic or soulless. By sculpting beautiful new forms into the city’s structures and landscapes; by incorporating light, plants, trees, water; by imagining new ways to connect with each other and work with each other, you will allow the coming crowd to live more richly, more meaningfully, than has ever been possible in history – and to do so without sacrificing your grandchildren.
By imagining new ways to connect with each other and work with each other, we will allow the coming crowd to live more richly, more meaningfully, than has ever been possible...
Today in the St. Petersburg Times, Nathaniel French, a St. Pete native and 2011 graduate of Southern Methodist University, wrote in a guest column in the OpEd page:
“College students declaring their course of study must be aware of the financial benefits of each major. But they also should think about what they’d love to wake up and do every morning, how they can best contribute to society, and what it means to be truly fulfilled.”
What you’d love to wake up and do every morning, how to best contribute to society and be truly fulfilled – not an easy combo in today’s world, but not an impossible one either. At TEDxYouth@TampaBay we’re working to showcase people who know what they love and have found ways to do it for a living.
And sometimes it’s less a matter of finding meaningful work as finding meaning in the work you’re doing. In Meaningful Work: What Makes Work Meaningful? , psychologist Michael Steger relates the old story of three men laboring to break boulders with sledge hammers.
Steger sees meaningful work as made up of three parts:
- The work must make sense.
- The work must have achievable goals with apparent results.
- The work must serve the greater good in some way – making life better for co-workers or society.
In short, Malcolm Gladwell‘s contention that meaningful work occurs when effort is rewarded in some enduring way.
Steger cites growing evidence that workers who find meaning in their work are happier, more committed and often more productive workers. Curiosity, of course, is a vital component of the meaningful life. We have to want to know more about things, to be interested in learning more about the world around us, about what we’re doing and new and different ways to do it.
Alla Guelber has turned her quest for meaningful work into a thesis project called, reasonably enough, The Meaningful Work Project , in the service of her sought-after Master of Arts in Environmental Education and Communication at Royal Roads University
“The old paradigm is failing…,” she says. “Ecopreneurs. Social innovation. Green jobs. Systems thinking. It’s up to us to create new opportunities for our collective future.“
She asks some hard questions about creating those opportunities:
“How can I/we create meaningful work that encourages creativity and innovation? How can a community of practice where practitioners feel supported and encouraged in creating their own meaningful work be strengthened? How can we align our values and our work in the transition to a green economy?”
She’s taking a two-pronged approach to finding answers: A hands on experiential workshop called the Meaningful Work Retreat, and academic research into the lives of ecopreneurs, people who throw themselves “heart and mind”, Malcolm Gladwell-fashion, into work they find purposeful. The body of evidence is growing.
In the bulkily titled “Antecedents and Outcomes of Experienced Meaningful Work: A Person-Job Fit Perspective ” (PDF) researcher Wesley A. Scroggins cites a 2003 study that observed, “…meaningful work experiences are not only valuable to employees, but that experienced meaningful work by employees can also provide value to the organization. The study concluded that meaningful work experiences formed the foundation for employee engagement in organizations.
“…Furthermore, engagement was strongly correlated with both employee retention and the willingness to engage in discretionary pro-social behaviors. As organizations struggle to reduce costs and increase effectiveness, issues of retention management and citizenship behaviors have both received increased attention from management as potential sources of value to organizations.”
In other words, making work meaningful is in corporate best interests, too. As Chris Anderson says, our “coming crowd” needs lives rich with meaning, culture and community. Here’s hoping that this year’s crop of young grads become the ecopreneurs who can make it all happen.