I was very moved by Arianna Huffington's recent piece called "God, Cellphones, Quarterly Earnings and the Search for the Common Good." It's wrapped around the release of Jim Wallis's book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good and challenges all of us to give some serious thought as to how we all might live more aware of "our greater common good." It resonated with me for many reasons, but also because a few years ago I was writing about happiness, specifically our country-wide profound lack of it these days, and discovered that the happiest place on earth wasn't Disneyland after all, but Bhutan, a place committed to the shared common good. Conversely, we are so strung out on anti-depressants (taking far more than any other country in the world) and seem to be at least one of the unhappiest places on earth. What's up with that? I think part of what's up with that has a lot to do with the whole idea of how selfish and self-serving we are, mixed in with our obsessive digital disconnect -- and that disconnect is costing us. Not to mention we too often talk self-help and self-analyzing to death, relentlessly pursuing some kind of personal perfection that we constantly feel we are falling short of. Perfection is a hologram of a goal, but healthy change for the better -- a far better pursuit -- is much more likely when pursued as a community project: as a hands-joined, hearts-united common goal.
In our relentlessly self-obsessed culture, constantly pushing us to do better, be better, know better and live better, it seems to me we feel worse about ourselves these days than at any time I can remember. A lot of us are wildly depressed, feeling terrible about ourselves even as we continue to really 'work at' self-improvement while being unwilling to put our energy into larger improvements that will benefit our collective common good. Our politics are unhealthfully polarized as well, focused on what 'works best' for my party or my paradigm. Screw you and yours. My ideals are what matters. My truth. My religion. And what that breeds is an ugly, unhappy atmosphere of rock throwing, name calling, and a Hatfield's and McCoy's, Capulets and Montagues-type disconnected unwillingness to let go of our personal minutiae and be bigger than our differences, all for the greater good. As Jim Wallis (in Arianna's piece) says after giving the state of us as humans, and as a nation, some serious thought, "I came to the conclusion that it's time to reframe our priorities." I couldn't agree with him more. And we better hurry up.
I wondered why Bhutan takes the cake as the happiest place, and very quickly found some clues as to why. They are such a sweet people, in their language, the words for "to help" are "to be a friend." They protect and prize their resources, realizing that what benefits the whole benefits each individual. That right there is the key to their bliss, if you ask me. They understand the importance of living beyond our individual selves and actually live their belief in the power of the common good. They believe hope resonates in groups. They actually measure their "gross national happiness" because it is so important to them. Whatever anyone may think of their philosophy, the proof is in the happiness pudding.
Here's the thing, Wallis is a Washington-based, in the trenches of group ideology -- politics and religion -- which are vitally important as forces in how we shape our future. But it seems to me things won't change until we change individually: how we think and how we act with regard to a bigger picture -- one that plays for the long run. Wallis brings up our need for listening and compromise and finding solutions. I think we are too often losing the ability to do that in our marriages, relationships, families, and even in our workplace. We divorce, we sue -- we are right and they are wrong. We, more and more often in our supposedly more enlightened world, are destroying our children in the name of being right, so bent on destroying our "enemy" right on our own soil, in our own homes. We can only rebuild our common good as a whole if we start doing so in our own worlds, in our homes, schools and communities -- where it's often the hardest. Wallis refers to it, "We must care for our neighbor as well, and for the health of the life we share with one another ... by regaining a moral compass for both our public and personal lives." I think his reference here to a moral compass isn't tied to a specific religion necessarily, but more about making choices that reflect a deeper, kinder, wiser way of living. Too often people assume the term "moral compass" means shoving my particular morality down another's throat (and maybe it has too often), but I mean it as a morality of character and mutual respect for exactly our 'differing' beliefs -- for something greater than our individual selves.
I think of the name of our Holocaust Museum here in Los Angeles, dedicated to looking back, and remembering: "The Museum of Tolerance." At the heart of its message is the acceptance, embrace and tolerance of our differences as human beings, no matter what our religion (and I would add to that: race or gender or sexual orientation). It stands as a vital reminder that we can get into real trouble when we forget this. Intolerance breeds contempt -- it builds walls and almost always stops important political policies from moving us forward, from taking steps toward the common good. Intolerance causes wars, kills us and our children, ruins our businesses, and eats away at our increasingly unhappy psyches and souls. Why do we persist? Why do we seem to be going backwards, in spite of history and all we know in retrospect? Mutual respect and tolerance is the only way toward the proven idea of what benefits the whole, benefits the individual. Thank God people like Arianna and Jim Wallis are inviting us all to the ongoing conversation. Can we lay down our weapons of difference -- and indifference -- and unite for the Common Good?? In a lot of 'make it or break it' areas -- finance, health, politics and global conditions global conditions -- I'm beginning to think that it's really now or never.