Beyond the Personal to the Common Good
A crew cut down three 80-year-old Italian cypress trees in my back yard last week; orders from the local fire department to reduce the danger from wildfires; beautiful Italian cypress trees not native to California, known to be full of resin and highly flammable.
Poignant. Growing for decades before I moved here. Bowing to the common good. And that got me thinking more deeply about the value of the common good and why we willingly sacrifice for it.
We all made sacrifices for the common good during the pandemic, of course. Not just out of fear for personal health and safety, but also for the sense of “we’re all in this together.” Knowing that so many people were risking their own lives to care for people who had been stricken with COVID, I could express my gratitude and contribute to the common good by sheltering myself, not getting sick, not spreading the virus, not taxing a severely overloaded health care system.
Knowing that 15,000 firefighters have been fighting wildfires all over my home state since the middle of summer, if I can do something now that will help them as they risk their lives to protect my life and home, cutting down those magnificent trees has a more than personal meaning and purpose for doing it.
The common good, based in our common humanity, helps temper the losses and holds the personal sacrifices in a larger perspective.
And that larger perspective helps create the safety and security of a social fabric, we’re all in this together. We stop at stop lights and recycle our garbage/compost and pay our speeding tickets and vote in elections because there is a shared caring for the common good and a shared trust in that caring.
Moral integrity is the old-fashioned term for the value that underlies acting for the common good. Some scientific research findings support at least one simple way we can cultivate that moral integrity. We are more likely to act on behalf of the common good when we know that other people are, too, and when our actions on behalf of the common good are acknowledged and valued by others.
The smallest example that encourages me still: Stopped at a busy intersection, just as the light turned green I heard sirens, and so I waited. The driver behind me began honking and yelling for me to move until he saw the fire truck zoom through the intersection right in front of us. And the driver in the car next to me rolled down his window and said, “You did the right thing.” A small moment that continues to encourage me when I’m wavering; someone could be noticing and my commitment to the common good is strengthened.
Exercise: At least three times in the coming week, when you notice someone doing something that contributes to the common good – picking up their dog’s poop or using their turn signals or waiting for an elderly person walk with their cane slowly through the door to the store, acknowledge the moment at least to yourself. And, if appropriate, acknowledge it to the person. The appreciation, out loud, acknowledges the effort and strengthens the fabric that holds us together.