The Common Good

My father had a very satisfying epiphany recently. It was fifty years in the making, but well worth the wait. He had studied a little philosophy as an undergraduate, where he had read about Immanuel Kant's "categorical imperative." In case you're not familiar with it, this was an attempt to establish a rational foundation for morality. Kant eventually decided that the only way to measure -- rationally, mind you -- whether an act was moral or immoral was to ask oneself whether the world would be a better place or a worse place if everybody did this one thing. So the world would be a worse place if everyone fired a gun in a theater, say; it would be a better place if everyone gave to charity.

This theory bugged my father, and for fifty years he had periodic arguments with Immanuel Kant (Manny, in his imagination), always without satisfaction. Then, one day, while driving to buy some eggs and muffins, he hit on it. "Manny," he thought, "if everyone spent all day sitting around writing philosophy, the world wouldn't be a better place. No houses would get built, and there would be no one to sell me eggs and muffins. And yet it is not immoral for you to spend all day writing philosophy."

I have no idea what Manny would have actually said in response to this, but the writer in me loved my father's epiphany. I don't blame Immanuel Kant for wanting to construct a rational moral code. We have laws in this land, after all, laws written for the common good, laws we hammered out in argument and debate, laws most of us actually choose to follow. This is the world everyone, writer and non-writer, lives in -- a world with clocks and property lines and contracts and traffic lights. If not for all these rules and clocks and traffic lights, our days would be spent in chaos.

Yet every day when I sit down to write I must forget all of these laws and rules. When I sit down to write, there can be but one rule I follow: Thou shall write only what pleases you most, and thou shall not give a damn what anyone else thinks of it or thou will be lost in a forest of misery and doubt. It's a great rule, but one that has not always been so easy for me to follow. I'm not an anarchist, nor do I like to piss other people off. I'm a good citizen, you could say, and I generally prefer the company of other good citizens. It's easier.

Easy, that is, until I try to write. It is quite hard to be a good citizen and a good writer simultaneously. To be a good writer, I must exercise extreme selfishness. I must indulge my curiosity. I must amuse myself, excite myself, move myself, and surprise myself. While writing, I am a little nation -- no, a world of one. When the writing is going well, the world is united and at peace.

It's a very satisfying experience, perhaps the most satisfying I know. I have known it since I was a boy, since I first began writing while also learning to follow all the rules I needed to follow to be a good citizen. In those early days, I didn't have the opportunity to share what I wrote, and so these two worlds felt separate. Now, I do share it, and what I find most pleasing, though not really surprising, is that the worlds were never separate. The common good, it turns out, is always love. Love defies rational thought, because it asks for nothing and yet receives everything. I will never understand love as I have come to understand traffic laws, but every time I sink into that dream of writing, every time I forget the laws of the world outside my window and remember the single rule of writing, I know love again exactly as I know myself.

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