Our Most Wasted Resource: Our Capacity for Good

As Aristotle taught, people do not naturally or spontaneously grow up to be morally excellent or practically wise. They become so, if at all, only as a result of a lifelong personal and community effort.
- Jon Moline

On December 10, the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee will present the award to this year's Peace Prize Laureates. The announcement of the winners, Kailash Satyarthi of India and Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, came in mid-October, shortly before the Catholic feast of All Saints on November 1st.

These two events made me question why, as a human community, we like to single out such people. More importantly, what can their lives teach us? One key lesson is that saints and Laureates are not born, but made. Understanding and promoting how that happens is a critical concern.

What we need is a worldwide Manhattan Project focused on perfecting and disseminating the best of our scientific knowledge on the process of positive human development. Eknath Easwaran, a spiritual teacher and author, referring to the team of scientists whose Manhattan Project created the first atomic bomb during World War II, wrote: "We study how to remake the world, but not how to remake ourselves."

In recent decades, to counter increased rates among students of violence, bullying, and other negative behaviors, some schools have initiated character education programs, but the success rate is mixed. Peter R. Greer, a consultant on character education for schools, argued in Education Week that current ethics and values-based education is short on resources and methods, saying:

[T]his vital subject is being taught on the cheap, even by well-intentioned schools. Some of what is called character education is presented in ways that require little effort and have no lasting impact.

A 2010 federally funded study of schools in the U.S. found that character education programs generally fail to improve student social or character development.

So, let's start another Manhattan Project to work on how to release the positive energy of human potential that we see in the saints and Laureates we admire.

Since 2009, I have taught a graduate-level course, called "Values-Centered Leadership." I tell students the story of St. Vincent de Paul, the 17th century French priest and Patron Saint of Charity for whom our university is named.

St. Vincent de Paul's story is fascinating. He started out life the son of a peasant couple. Later in life he recalled:

When I was a little boy and my father took me to town with him, I was ashamed to walk with him and acknowledge him as my father, because he was poorly dressed and limped a little.

He also told of the day when his father visited him at the seminary where he was studying for the priesthood: "They came to tell me my father, who was a poor peasant, was asking for me. I refused to go and speak to him."

There it is. The crux of our dilemma: how did a young man with such a prideful, self-serving ego and disdain for his own peasant class transform into the Patron Saint of Charity?

St. Vincent de Paul's story is important because we all start out where he began, and the steps of his journey are our steps, too. His family selected him to enter the priesthood because he showed intellectual potential, and because in those days in France it was a way to acquire wealth through a lucrative church appointment. He was happy to oblige, but his first encounters with the real poor stopped him short, and he entered into a period of reflection on his values, and the meaning and purpose of his priesthood. Therein, lies the key to the making of the saint and the laureate: life events become more than simply events. They become pivotal moments of encounter and transformation when examined through a process of personal reflection.

My students come to class wanting to know how to create and maintain teams that are cohesive, motivated, creative, and productive. They want to know how to balance what is right for themselves, for their organization, and for a healthy planet.

Finding the answer to those questions, I tell them, involves taking time to reflect on their values and learning to align their behaviors with those values. That is the "how to" lesson from the lives of saints and Nobel Peace Prize winners. They did exactly that, sometimes, as in 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai, even at the risk of death.

At the start of my leadership course, I invite my students to reflect on several questions that jump-start them on the path of self-awareness and clarity around their values and sense of purpose:

• Who am I?
• What is my life purpose?
• What are my core beliefs?
• What are my core values?
• What sources informed my beliefs and values in my early childhood?
• What sources inform my beliefs and values today?
• What, if anything, has changed about my core beliefs and values from childhood through today?
• What do I expect from myself in leading others?
• What do I expect of others whom I lead?

My students say this process helps them come to know more clearly what they value and the behaviors they want to cultivate. They report leaving my class more confident, more content, and more effective in their personal lives and in leading others.

Speaking on how
she became an advocate for girl's education, Malala Yousafzai said:

When in Pakistan we were stopped from going to school, at that time I realized that education is very important and education is the power for women, and that's why the terrorists are afraid of education.

To be sure, there are many people silently doing what is right and good in their homes, neighborhoods, villages, and towns all around the world. Yet, if we are to reverse the trend of violence and environmental destruction on our planet, we need many, many more such people. It's time for a Manhattan Project focused on our most wasted resource: our capacity for good.