Personal Responsibility and the Common Good

I recently heard Bill McKibben, the inspiring environmentalist, say that our country is currently engaged in a struggle of two fundamentally oppositional world views. It is either every man for himself or we are all in it together. You choose.

I understood what he meant. I share his righteous indignation about the bad actors who are only in it for themselves. But, still, there was something about his statement that made me so sad.

Is there really an epic struggle? Must it be one or the other?

Is personal responsibility lost in America?

Instant gratification. Immediate results. Quarterly earnings. We are so geared toward short-term gains and happiness that we have lost our way to long-term peace and contentment.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight, contributing to diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes. Access to healthful and affordable food is a real problem, but we also eat too much and don’t exercise enough, trading short-term gratification for long-term health and happiness.

Americans have an average of less than $100,000 in their retirement accounts and less than 20% contribute to an IRA. Wage stagnation over the past decade is real, but there is also no arguing that we are mostly unwilling to proactively save for a rainy day, or even just a day when we won’t be able to work anymore.

American-led consumption of disposable plastic, cheap toys, and fast fashion is poisoning the earth. Globally, we dump about 8 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean each year. That salmon you’re having for dinner – it probably has pieces of plastic in its flesh. We have forfeited our children’s right to clean water and air for cheap energy, food, clothes, and endless amounts of junk.

These statistics really raise my hackles. As a child of the American West, I was raised with a strong sense of rugged individualism and personal responsibility. If people can’t take care of their own bodies, futures, and communities, why should anyone else care to help?

Is the common good lost in America?

The system is rigged. It was a strong theme in the last election, and for good reason.

The 400 wealthiest individuals on the Forbes 400 list own more than the bottom 150 million Americans.

Exxon Mobil knew about and actively obscured climate science for more than two decades in order to protect their bottom line.

The 2008 financial crisis, which ruined and disrupted countless lives, would not have come to pass but for an astonishingly small number of very greedy people.

I can understand why people feel defeated and uninspired to take responsibility for their individual role in our collective well-being. What is the point of trying to make the world a better place if huge, powerful interests are going to act like takers. Why shouldn’t we take too?

Bridging the Divide

If one thing is clear in these strange times, it is that we must find our way to reconciliation and a shared concern for the body politic.

My personal road back is through communion and community. When I look to what is common, I find allies everywhere. Common cause, common faith, common concern.

I am at a point in my life where my roots are growing deep. I find myself imbedded in many wonderful, intersecting communities. My lovely Unitarian Universalist church. My sweet daughter’s elementary school. My tribe of 5:30 am runners (I see you there, with the headlamp). My colleagues. My friends. My family.

It is as though I am weaving a net and each thread makes the fabric stronger and more resilient. Each thread gives me more safety if I fall.

The more I am in community, the safer I am.

The more I am in community, the harder I work for the common good.

The more I am in community, the more responsibility I take for my words and actions.

It is every woman for herself. And, we are all in this together.