“I believe in one thing—that only a life lived for others is a life worth living.” Albert Einstein, 1948
As I look around at the ever-growing climate crisis and the shocking lack of global action, the fracturing of democracies and toxicity of public discourse, constant war, and the widening gap between the very wealthy and everyone else and especially the desperately poor, several questions occur to me.
What does it mean to be a human being twenty years into the 21st century? What are our individual and collective behaviors revealing about ourselves? As a species are we advancing or regressing? How far removed are we from the coarseness and cruelty of our ancestors near and far? How far have we advanced toward a higher refinement of what it means to be human, toward the nobility of kindness, compassion, generosity of spirit, appreciating our interdependence with each other, and applying our enormous mental, emotional, and spiritual capacities for the betterment of life on Earth?
What does the exercise of common humanity look like in the year 2020? What are our responsibilities to the fabric of humanity and all life on Earth?
These are sobering times that require sober reflection on questions like these; questions about what we truly value and what we identify ourselves to be. Do we shrug our shoulders and say “thus it has always been” or are humans more like a Chesapeake Bay blue crab molting out of its shell to make room for new growth, habitually throwing off the confining old and emerging as something new, a more transparent expression of our “better angels” within?
The sustainability movement itself germinated and continues to grow from fundamental human values that are held in common among all peoples and cultures. That’s why the movement is committed to creating a safe and just place for all humanity within the life-giving laws and limits of our planet.
Throughout my career I have been privileged to work with people in many aspects of all three sectors of society – government, business, and civil society – as well as in my personal life with friends and loved ones, who exemplify values in action on behalf of a better world.
I think the commonly held values that underlie the sustainability movement are reflected in four questions that, one way or another, we were all taught to ask ourselves when we were children.
The first question is: How am I showing up today? Am I living carelessly or carefully? Am I paying close attention to living faithfully to the things I hold most dear? Does it show in the way I present and express myself every day? Robert K. Greenleaf, who defined the concept of Servant Leadership, reminds us that ‘the quality of our inner life is manifested outwardly.’ Perhaps the single biggest thing we can do to contribute to a just, thriving, sustainable world is to cultivate the quality of our inner life so that what is manifest outwardly reflects the very best of who we are and what it means to be human.
The second question: What is my impact on others? What am I seeing and bringing out in others? Trappist monk Thomas Merton observed that “There is in all visible things…a hidden wholeness.” Am I perceiving and speaking to the wholeness within others? Do they feel seen and heard? Do they leave an interaction with me better or worse for the experience? These every day, common interactions with others have enormous cumulative effects. We are not responsible for how our expression of humanity is received, only for what our expression of humanity is.
The third question: How am I treating the world around me? Do I appreciate how utterly interdependent I am with all life on Earth and how completely reliant I am on healthy, functioning planetary systems? Do I understand how precious life on Earth is? If so, do I act like it, with intention, doing my best to ensure that my impact on the world is regenerative and restorative?
I guarantee that our impact on the world around us will improve, as will our mental and emotional wellbeing, if we invest time regularly – even as little as twenty minutes – in nature. Humans have a natural affinity for life, for all life on Earth. Pulitzer prize-winning Harvard biologist and Alabama native E.O. Wilson uses the term “biophilia” to describe this connection. He wrote a book by that name and as it says on the book cover, “Wilson argues that our natural affinity for life – biophilia—is the very essence of our humanity and binds us to all other living species.” What does that look like in practice? I know the results of these experiences are calming, relaxing, and leave me with a better perspective on what matters.
The fourth question: What am I leaving for those who come after me? It infuriates me every time I hear about another assault on remaining old-growth forests, like the current assault on the Tongass in Alaska, the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the world; or the wanton and willful destruction of the Amazon that is underway; or the destruction of water and air quality programs and policies that is reversing decades of already inadequate protections; or the mass extinction of species human activity is causing. How much of what is left of the natural world are we going to restore, protect, and save for future generations? “None of it” is the answer that comes most immediately to mind based on the evidence.
What am I leaving when it comes to human relations? I am dismayed by the legacy of prejudice, oppression, and demonizing the other that we perpetuate and leave for those who come after us, a legacy that is tolerated and even being amplified today. No one is born with hatred or prejudice. It is either taught or learned through suffering caused by others.
More immediately, what are we leaving and providing for the next generation that is already here, the children? The February 3, 2020 issue of TIME includes an essay by Jeff Madrick, author of Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Child Poverty. The essay opens this way: “Nearly 1 in 5 American children is officially poor. That’s roughly 15 million kids. But the number living with a significant deprivation–insufficient food, seriously overcrowded housing or a lack of access to medical care due to cost–is actually much higher. According to the latest studies, it’s more like 1 in 3. Why do we tolerate this?”
John Woolman, A Quaker who lived in colonial times, models for us what is possible when one person lives and acts consistent with their values. Woolman spent more than twenty years traveling the colonies asking fellow Quakers how, given the tenant of the Christian faith that acknowledges the divine within each individual, they could enslave other human beings. One of the questions he asked was ‘Do you think it is right to pass along the burden of this sin to your children?’ After more than two decades of his persistence and the Quaker community contemplating these questions, Quakers became the first religious community in the New World to renounce slavery.
Deep reflection on our most closely held values and what they mean for how we live can and does create meaningful, healing change.
The Great Law of the Iroquois, which inspired Benjamin Franklin and other founders as they were creating the American system of government, was written between the 12th and 16th centuries. To me it is a guide; and a measure.
“The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans — which is to say that you shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Your heart shall be filled with peace and good will and your mind filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy. With endless patience you shall carry out your duty and your firmness shall be tempered with tenderness for your people. Neither anger nor fury shall find lodgement in your mind and all your words and actions shall be marked with calm deliberation. In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.”
The Great Law of the Iroquois evokes values that are ageless and universal. We know what matters most. Following its lead, we’re able to give gratifying answers to the four questions. If enough of us aspire to live as true to our values as John Woolman did, we’ll all be okay. We will see what the expression of humanity in the 21st century looks like, and what it can achieve.