Contribution to Society

When I was a teenager and thinking about my future my father would tell me, “what is important in life is making a contribution to society.”

He never defined exactly what he meant but he didn’t have to. His tone called up all those he believed were not making such a contribution: the selfish and the control-hungry, and especially those insensitive to the plight of the disenfranchised around them. He knew, growing up as he did in Nazi Germany and later as a refugee traveling from country to country, what those people looked like for real. On the road, the farmer who gave you work for a few days might well understand that you had no other place to go, and that might lead to either compassion and welcome and rest, or to being used and taken advantage of; for example, being given very hard work to “pay” for an inadequate meal and an infested mattress — by someone who understood precisely how hard a starving refugee could be pushed. He’d been through that and it had shaped him.

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As a child, I recall my father reading his evening paper in his comfortable easy chair, shaking his head about an unfairness of some kind in the news. Someone with less power was getting hurt by someone with more. He voiced his frustration as a champion for the working stiff and the underdog, and for anyone discriminated against because of ethnicity. He’d not forgotten what the world could be and do to people. He had never been a victim, but he’d also learned early on how to quash his anger in public in order to not stand out for anything, praise or punishment. He wasn’t a victim; he was a survivor, and it had paid off.

I did not inherit all of these patterns, but the notion of that contribution to society certainly stuck in my bones. How could you have a meaningful life without it? And what would be that contribution? I cannot remember all of what I thought as a young man getting this advice, but writing was certainly there for me and the idea of society itself, creating a better society, one with more equity, one with more understanding. And so there you have it, these feelings worked behind the scenes, shaping my own choice of a career in support of effective, humane workplaces and the value of people.

I suspect that many who might read this also have some of the same sort of thing in their blood. And looking at the current political polarization and economic polarization of American society wonder what we can do. What kind of contribution can we make every day that somehow moves us toward solutions that reduce the dangers of polarization, which are fragmentation through enmity, contempt, isolation and superiority? Polarization, it seems to me, is always a win/lose proposition with ever higher stakes, where that “winning,” whatever side you are on, is eventually also a loss for the whole, a cause of suffering and, potentially, of war.

My father’s answer to the question, after achieving citizenship and serving in the American military during WWII (he chose to fight in the Philippines), was to stay out of the storm, keep his head down, go to work, do his job as a carpenter for the Boeing Company everyday for thirty years plus, and support his family — do what he conceived to be his duty.

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But can any of us today afford such a luxury?

Probably not. The fragmentation is coming very close now. The fabric is thin, in places torn. What can we do to mend it? What will you do? What will be your “contribution”? Because society, a word originally from the Latin for “companion,” is always in our hands, and there is evident work to do. The fundamental question, given that Latin definition, is who will we choose as our companions and how will we, you and I, contribute to that companionship? On this small planet of swirling light and dark, will we try to congregate only with people just like us, rich or poor, left or right? Will we only read the news and watch the channels we want to hear? Will we brick up the walls of our ideologies? Or will we, in the face of our own human selfishness and hunger for control, our own insensitivity, make a subtle but powerful choice to stretch the field?

It seems to me that the first change is always one of consciousness. To grow weary of the polarization. To find it unacceptable — and say so. And then to start looking for solutions, not just compromises (although they may help in the short term), even if it means discarding our own dearest ideologies as part of the problem and in order to get at something more fundamental, undiscovered and true. The biggest contribution is always to go farther down, farther in to the human spirit and our greatest capabilities. To see the times as a teacher and a challenge, not a failure, and let go of all the rigid labels that keep things exactly where they are. Something new and better is on the horizon, if only we can let go of what we cling to so tightly.

The alternative, it seems to me, is really to go backwards, perhaps ultimately to a world of “farmers” and “refugees,” and, my friends, my companions, let me ask you, who on God’s green earth would ever want that?

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10 Comments

  • Michael Piper wrote:

    Love your reference to your father! How amazing in his own way. I am really frightened by events of the day. England riots – claims that it will happen here; Wall Street. I need to find that “thread”..

  • Mike, thanks for coming here. Yes, I agree, the thread that Stafford mentions in “The Way It Is” helps, if only to realize that change is constant. It also helps us to not panic, step back, decide what we can do for each other and for ourselves. You understand, my friend, how important elders are to a community. Time to step into that.

  • Beautifully written. It’s as if you’ve been reading my mind Dan. I’ve thought of our Boomer and older generations in particular recently – that we should be ready (if age dictates it) to retire away in quiet peacefulness somewhere, but that’s not our current option – not our “luxury.” This is a time where anyone with more to give to our fellow human beings needs to give it so we feel the true abundance of life again. In that giving we can find our retirement peace of mind too, and perhaps a better one. The toughest thing seems to be getting those at the poles to accept our help though, and we continue to reshape messages so they can be heard.

  • Yes, that’s a basic challenge for me, too, Rosa, because it calls up my own personal polarities. I think my response is best when I am willing to touch times and places in my own life when I’ve lived extreme views and been at the poles. Then, for me, it’s usually a matter of seeing how I’ve hung my own identity on personal values and private fears that have gone unexamined. That work can only be fostered by others “holding tension” with me, by continuing questions and by creating an invitation; in essence to set a boundary while also providing support; being clear and steadfast while listening and working to understand.

  • I’m really liking the word ‘polarity’ Dan, as the opportunity it provides us with having this conversation, both with others and as the self-coaching you describe which holds our own tension. We all have poles we’ve staked claim to – in fact, it can be said our polarity is where our personal values ring truest, and that too is a conversation with self to have: Do I really believe this, or am I being swayed and overly influenced in some way, and if so, why? We humans are complicated creatures… it’s all quite fascinating. Hopeful too, in future-forward possibility.

  • Ditto on fascinating and hopeful! Often the question for me is “What am I protecting?” And when I find out it’s often a discovery of how I’ve placed too many eggs in one basket. As Bill Sease, a professor in my counseling program once said, “Anytime a person says I have to be this way, or I have to do this, you are getting closer to the problem.” There are many times when I’ve heard my own ‘have to’s,’ thought of Bill’s words — and smiled.

  • Kia ora Dan,
    I arrived via Joe McCarthy, and I really enjoyed this thought provoking post. How many of us are really prepared to step outside our comfort zones? Particularly in how we see others, those with different view points, religions, ethnicity, power or privilege? It is extremely difficult. I have witnessed the journey of a beautiful friend here in New Zealand who has embraced her indigenous Maori culture after living within the Pahkea (white) side of her world for 30 plus years. Her courage and commitment, and change has caused my wife and I to try and change ourselves simply to keep up with someone we love. It is difficult as a bit of awareness makes me realize my own privilege and the constant difficulties of “others” trying to get on in this world. It seems so easy to be critical of our differences rather than celebrate and embrace them. Kia ora.
    Cheers,
    Robb

  • Robb

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment in return. You are so right that the work is not easy. There is so much to learn in order to “extend the field,” and the process is soulful and sometimes comes with moments of painful self-discovery.

    As a counterpoint, your story about your friend is touching, Robb, and offers such a wonderful reason to do the learning: the love of another.

    The most beautiful reason of all.

    Again, thank you, Robb.

  • Barb Hummel wrote:

    Eloquent as always, Dan. Parker’s new book– just out!– Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics of the Human Spirit– is one that I know would resonate with you. He names habits of the heart that could change our public discourse. A video clip of him talking about that is at http://www.couragerenewal.org/parker. Also, there will be a national one-hour webcast of Parker: “Democracy from the Inside Out” the evening of Oct 11 (7pm CST)– 700+ of the 1000 sites are already spoken for!
    Keep the conversation going, Dan– we all need it!

  • Wonderful, Barb — many thanks so much for posting this great link to Parker Palmer’s new (and destined to be enduring) work!

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