Common Fire

What is it about people who orient their lives around the common good? Interviews with dozens of entrepreneurs, homemakers, youth workers, artists, community leaders, religious leaders, and others reveal some surprising patterns
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Photo by Volkan Olmez /Unsplash

There are millions of citizens who refuse to succumb to what their more cynical neighbors call “reality,” who insist with their lives that there has to be a better way – and who day by day go about bringing it into being. What makes them tick? What enables them to see beneath the surface and work for the common good rather than simply for their own private welfare? What inspires people to act from their own sense of a larger integrity even when it means going contrary to the status quo? And how can these circles of compassion widen?

Wondering about these questions, Sharon Parks, Cheryl and James Keen, and I listened to the stories of 145 educators, entrepreneurs, homemakers, youth workers, artists, attorneys, writers, scientists, religious leaders, and physicians who are working to improve schools, health, business practices, race relations, economic conditions – the quality of public life in general. Some were well-known and well-paid, others little-known and underpaid. Representing a range of religions, ethnicities, and social classes, all were doing tough and complex work on behalf of the common good; they were aware of how their work related to the larger economic, social, and political system, and had been steadily committed for at least a decade. What patterns characterize their lives? What keeps them going in the face of discouragement? The full story appears in our book, Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World, but here is some of what we learned.

Normal, healthy people

In a world that assumes fundamental human nature to be self- interested, people who work primarily on behalf of the whole commons are often labeled “saints” – or worse, martyrs or hypocrites. The great social activist Dorothy Day declined the honor, declaring that she did not wish to be called a saint because she didn’t want to be “dismissed so easily.” She was all too aware that saints are more admired than emulated and knew that a recognition of our fallibility is what keeps us grounded.

Although there are risks aplenty in committing oneself to the common good, people who do so rarely describe themselves as courageous. Kelly Seabrook, who works with young drug offenders in Boston’s “combat zone,” told us, “It’s not courage; it’s just where I should be.” Perhaps it is not these people but our idea of what is “normal” that is out of step.

In fact, we were struck by how healthy the people we studied were. For the most part, they were raised in homes where they learned to trust that the world would work for them and where they were encouraged to make a difference. This did not mean that their families were necessarily affluent (35 percent of our sample came from poor or working-class backgrounds), nor did it mean that they had conventionally “happy childhoods.” There was ample suffering to go around. But even where the immediate family failed, there was always an aunt, a grandfather, or sometimes a caring neighbor or teacher who provided the support and assurance that life could be lived more fully. Sometimes this made the vital difference between a life shattered and one healed.

A certainty of connection

In our highly individualistic culture, we tend to uphold a romantic vision of the altruistic hero, a lone, isolated individual who stands against the tide for what is right, indifferent to what others think. And yet few if any of those we studied represented this stereotype. Rather, they cared what others thought and felt, and were characterized by a particular capacity for connection, an ability to draw others around them into communities of comfort and challenge.

Anne Sanchez, working for years to involve disaffected citizens in the political process said, “You don’t make it on your own, and in my experience, the people who tried were the people who lost their commitments.” Without the knowledge that we are intrinsically connected with one another, our effectiveness is sharply limited, and we are ill-equipped for the long haul in the face of the inevitable difficulties that arise when we do have to stand up for what is right.

Open to compassion

Under the barrage of violent media images, it’s easy to become numb to the suffering of those on distant TV screens and of neighbors around the corner. Yet people committed to the common good remain open to the suffering around them, in part because they are reasonably in touch with their own pain – neither sealing it out nor being debilitated by it.

After years of beatings at the hands of his alcoholic father, Paul Chen finally left home and was rescued by a neighborhood youth worker. He subsequently became a pastor with a deep commitment to economic justice and community building. “There’s not a day that I’m not reminded of human connectedness because of the pain I share from my own background,” he told us.

Sometimes, as with Chen, the personal anguish is great, but more often it is of the sort that most of us experience during the course of simply living fully. The key lies not in our suffering, but in our ability to use it to connect with the pain of others. Held poorly, our torment seals us off from others or disables us; held well, awareness of our own pain enables us to resonate with that of others and work toward the healing of the whole community.

Despite a certain truth in the bromide that “before you help others you should have it together yourself,” this is often more excuse than wisdom. It’s what Paul Rogat Loeb refers to as “the perfect standard,” the insistence that one must be perfect, without doubt, before taking any action.

Liz Brown, a physician who works with AIDS- afflicted infants in an inner city hospital freely acknowledges that a part of her passion for children’s health care lies in her inability to have children of her own. In fact, helping others and healing oneself often go hand in hand. A growing number of psychotherapists now urge their clients to take part in service activities as they heal their own wounds.

At home in the world

In a world of growing cultural diversity, many Americans are retreating to their own “cocoons,” living in gated communities, sticking together with their own kind, cultivating a world of “us” and “them.” Where diversity is inevitable, it is often seen as a problem to be overcome rather than an opportunity to be welcomed. Those whom we interviewed were able to respond to the voices of the entire community, attending to those who were very different from themselves.

Indeed, the single strongest pattern was that at some point during their formative years, virtually everyone we interviewed had experienced a positive relationship with someone significantly different from themselves, of a different “tribe.” Significantly, almost three quarters of our sample had traveled abroad by young adulthood.

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Furthermore, the experience was more than a casual encounter; it included a felt, empathic connection, a relationship that created a deep sense of the fundamental humanity of the other.

When Tracy Flanagan was a teen, a conflict broke out between the Black and White kids in her neighborhood. The local priest tapped Tracy to help mediate.

Although she became a lightning rod for the anger of both sides, she emerged stronger for the experience. Over the subsequent years, she became increasingly involved in such “cross-tribal” experiences. Today she is the director of a fair-housing agency in a major urban area. It is encounters like hers that transform the “us” and “them” into a “we” – the ground of commitment to the common good.

It’s the system...

At a time when conventional wisdom seeks out single causes and simple answers to our complex social challenges, or when we are tempted to explain problems solely in terms of individual personality, those who sustain long-term commitment have learned to see the “systemic” dimensions of life. Where others see misfortune, they recognize injustice.

One of the most important ways in which this capacity is learned is through mentors –Ã college teachers, job supervisors, internship leaders, senior managers, rabbis and pastors – older adults who are present at a crucial time in a young person’s development, who help them to see their world in a more critically informed way, and who model a committed life themselves.

When he graduated from college, Jack Heinz went to work with a small food co-op in the mid-west. The director soon became a mentor for Jack, sending him to a United Nations conference where he came face to face with the problems of global hunger and began to see the connections between poverty and our economic system. His mentor later brought him onto the board of the organization. Over the years, Jack became increasingly involved with international development and eventually became head of one of the largest and most successful private relief agencies in the world.

Ease with ambiguity

Few if any of those we interviewed would claim to hold “the truth” for all people, though all assert strong life-affirming values. It is as though they do not need to live with the answers all formed, nor do they expect this of others. Somehow the evolution of their lives has taught them to be at ease with mystery and the ambiguity that invariably comes with complex territory.

Interestingly, this willingness to dwell with mystery extends to the way they imagine the future as well. Such people are often thought of as “visionaries,” and yet when asked what their vision is, more often than not they demur, saying that the vision must be created by the whole community they are working with. Their notion of leadership is to bring forth a shared vision rather than to articulate their own and expect others to follow.

“It’s not a vision so much as a process,” said one person, adding, “but you have to be clear about the broad values.”

In the final analysis one must also be clear about what one needs to flourish as a committed human being. When we asked Valerie Russell, a veteran civil rights worker who had faced down the dogs and the billy clubs, how she managed to stay the course, especially when it got discouraging, she responded immediately: “Meals and music.”

We heard others speak similarly. Meals shared together with a few friends and colleagues provide the nourishment for body and spirit that comes from a combination of good food and good conversation –conversation that gives perspective, heals, and helps us to say “yes” all over again. And music can help us hold it all together – the suffering and the wonder of life itself –in a way that anchors and re-invigorates the soul. How we are together and what feeds our souls is what finally makes the difference in a world hungry for hope.


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