OUR WORK IN LIFE
by Alan Nordstrom
What is our Work in this life? It is to join with those who believe that human beings can grow conscious and wise enough collectively to rectify the present disastrous vectors we’re traveling along toward the ruination of our planetary habitat and the oppression or inhumane neglect of vast numbers of our own kind.
It is easy to be cynical and selfish and to look out for only one’s immediate interests, letting the rest of the world go to hell. And it is easy to rationalize that our general record as a race proves us inherently foolish and sinful—a bad lot, born of a bad seed, and demonstrating a long, tarnished history of violence, animosity, conquest, and repression.
But to be so cynical and despairing is to overlook the marvelous and humane achievements of human beings acting at their best: creatively, compassionately, and with confidence of progressing toward greater sanity and humanity. Human evil is an illness, an aberration from our natural state of wholesomeness or health. Yet our evil can be healed. Salvation is possible. Remedies are at hand. The cure is care, but the task is daunting because we have not yet established effective enough social institutions to nurture our development into healthy humaneness and to sustain that caring disposition throughout our lives.
First, we need to establish clearly that it is every human being’s aim and right to be healthy in the fullest sense, to be not just human but humane: kindly, compassionate, and dedicated to the health and well-being of all, clearly attuned to the inner-connectedness of all life within Earth’s biosphere. We have not yet fully humanized humanity, any more than we have become as wise as our species’ name boasts: Homo sapiens sapiens. To be humane and wise is our implicit potential and our hopeful goal.
This positive understanding, however, is not the story we are clearly and concertedly telling ourselves. Rather, a selfish and egotistical story predominates in the postmodern society, a story that emphasizes acquisition and self-gratification, envy and competition, flaunting and narcissism. Our children are taught to want to Make It Big. Our commercial culture strives mightily to cultivate our sense of deficiency, to generate wants and exacerbate desires that only its products (it promises us) can fulfill. This perverse story is killing us and threatens the entire web of Earthly life. Therefore, we need to articulate and act out a salutary story of sanity and humanity, a new story for our whole species to live by in the 21st Century.
This story need not be metaphysical or mystical, religious or spiritual; for it is simply a story of good sense (if not yet common sense). Many spiritual traditions have, however, endorsed it, as the noteworthy Global Ethic* document went far to demonstrate at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions. It is a story that needs to be taught, practiced and lived faithfully in all of our social institutions worldwide, in schools especially.
Schools and colleges have the fundamental mission of cultivating humane human beings: mens sana in corpore sano. Learning is for serving the health and well-being of oneself and others; it is not selfish but altruistic, contributing to the greater good. In the pursuit of education, the governing question each student ought to ask is, “What can I contribute to the benefit, and not the detriment, of the world?” To discover all students’ most apt and congenial ways to make such contributions, and then to lead them to actualize those potentials, is the highest aim of education. The premise of this process is that people will discover real happiness only as they can realize their own capabilities to add to the world’s wealth—which literally means health and well-being, our collective sanity and humanity.