In Search of the Common Good
Essay 1: Why Are We So Contentious?
Our nation is divided. We are divided over vaccines and masks. We are divided by politics, everything from what we teach our children in school to climate change and energy policy. We are even divided over pronouns. Some people are energized by the division. They enjoy fighting for their team against their perceived adversaries. Most of us, though, have had enough. As a physician, I can tell you that most patients know when something is seriously wrong with their bodies. Americans know there is something very wrong with the body politic.
Why are we so contentious? Some say it is because people are being fed misinformation. If we shared the same set of facts, that theory states, we would all be on the same page. One problem with that concept is that facts change. What appeared to be true at one moment can, on some future date, be proven fallacious. History is chock full of facts gone bad.
It’s not misinformation or disinformation that is the root of our division. They may be the fuel that fans the flames, but they are not the heart of the matter. Nor are our polarized political positions the culprits, though you might be convinced otherwise if you listen to the cable news gang. Instead, it is far more likely that our contentiousness arises from a deeper, more fundamental source. What we lack is a consensus on life’s purpose.
If we don’t share a common purpose, we are unlikely to agree on the set of behaviors we expect of each other and on the outcomes we seek. We will argue and, as a consequence of our disagreements, our antipathy towards those with whom we differ is likely to grow. In the most extreme conditions, we might even wish to harm each other. Sadly, all of this has already occurred.
A successful society requires agreed-upon standards and rules. These standards and rules derive from shared values. Shared values emanate from a common purpose.
Most of us presume that there is a fixed amount of stuff in this world. There is only so much oil, so many diamonds, so many other rare minerals. This concept of a fixed amount of resources can be generalized to more abstract concepts. It can be money, power, prestige, or control for which we compete. If these are in finite supply, then it follows that your gain of any of those is my loss. That presumption is precisely what has gotten us to where we are today. If maximizing any of those resources is the target, individuals will logically pursue a course that will maximize their share of those entities. That creates conflict. We might lie and cheat without remorse to get what we desire. We might feel free to step on or over those who block our way, or worse, hurt them. If we believe that the purpose of life is to acquire as many of those resources as possible, it makes sense that we should use all the tools at our disposal to achieve those aims.
If each of us believes that we are the center of our universe, that our individual desires take precedence, we will interpret everything through the prism of how an event or outcome will affect us individually. From that perspective, what is beneficial to others takes a back seat to our wants. We may pay lip service to the welfare of our neighbors, but our actions reveal the truth — we are each focused on our personal targets.
How then do we explain those selfless souls, individuals who are willing to lose for the greater good? What magic potion have they drunk that permits them to yield resources to others? What do they know that most of us don’t?
They know that the purpose of life has little to do with the acquisition of wealth, power, prestige, or control. They are convinced that there is a deeper story. For many, that knowledge derives from religion. No matter one’s opinion of organized religion, it is undeniable that it provides a sense of purpose to its adherents. This is not an advertisement for religion writ large. It is solely an acknowledgment of one of its virtues.
So what of the rest of us, those who are not convinced by the words in the texts of the great religions? Purpose must be found elsewhere, by some alternate route. Is that even possible? Does the secular world provide any framework through which purpose can be deduced?
I believe it does. I am convinced that there is a discoverable purpose to our lives. It turns out that clues to that purpose are everywhere.
In a previous book, The Currency of Life: Uncovering The Clues To Why We’re Here, I discussed those clues in detail. I will distill many of the salient points from that book in the essays that follow. Some of the clues we will discuss come from science, what I refer to as “hard” clues. Others are less empirical but equally important, the “softer” clues. We will employ both in our quest to discover purpose.
Everyone desires a life with minimal angst and maximum joy. The contentiousness we are collectively experiencing is taking us down a path in exactly the opposite direction. It maximizes angst and sucks the joy from everyday living. It is damaging our communities and our nation.
Once we discover a purpose on which we can agree, we can then focus on practical, real-life actions and behaviors that will generate a far less contentious society and simultaneously produce ever-greater personal happiness. That will be the focus of the next series of essays that will follow down the road.
First, though, we need to find that common purpose. In the following nine essays we will do just that. Less angst and greater joy lie ahead.
Essay 2: We’re Off To See The Wizard
When: Wednesday, March 23, 2022