“Each of us must rededicate ourselves to serving the common good. We are a community. Our individual Fates are linked; our futures intertwined; and if we act in that knowledge and in that spirit together, as the Bible says: ‘We can move mountains.’” –President Jimmy Carter
The common good. This is the hope that when it comes to how we humans being live together in community, there are certain times and certain ways we are called to act collectively, to do that which is right and good, not for self alone, but most important for others: for the community, the collective, the state or the nation or the world.
Given the unprecedented events of the last two weeks, as our world faces head on into the coronavirus pandemic, the most serious public health threat our nation has confronted since the polio outbreaks of the 1950’s and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, I’ve been thinking a lot about this ideal of the common good.
This is the idea that sometimes what I desire is less important than what we, together, require. That sometimes, in the words of Spock, a character from the Star Trek universe, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” That at certain times in history you and I and all of us as Americans: we are called by a greater good to stand as one people, to unite behind a common goal, to meet and defeat a common enemy, in this case, a disease.
If in the weeks ahead we all rise up to make the personal sacrifices needed to minimize the effect of the virus upon ourselves and our neighbors, fewer people will die.
Because the truth is this: If in the weeks ahead we all rise up to make the personal sacrifices needed to minimize the effect of the virus upon ourselves and our neighbors, fewer people will die, fewer people will get sick and, though it’s hard to imagine now, there will be a day soon, when we emerge from our social isolation back into full community again.
But if, in the weeks ahead, we downplay the threat of the virus, or we choose to ignore public health safety guidelines, or we ignore the greater good for our narrow individual good, or we hoard or we panic or we buy into fringe conspiracy ideas peddled by whack job commentators and even by some of our leaders, this is what will happen. More people will die, more people will get sick, our health care system will be overwhelmed and might even collapse, and we will devolve into an awful mess and tragedy. Not just for you or I but for all of us.
Here’s what I want and need to believe about us as Americans. That we have it within ourselves to embrace and carry out the common good in these fraught and frightening times. That we can all be patriots now in the truest sense, fellow citizens doing everything we can to work for the best outcome for the greatest number of people. That in spite of how surreal and weird this feels right now, that even as it develops and ramps up day to day like a national nightmare, we have within our social DNA, the right stuff, to do the right thing and right now. To do the common good.
Out of curiosity, I typed that phrase “common good” into Google’s Ngram viewer. The viewer taps into a database of more than 20 million digitized books and writings published between 1800 and 2008. Though not exact in its conclusions, the viewer offers a view into popular word usage at any given point in 208 years of history.
Not surprisingly, peak usage of the “common good” is 1941, the beginning of America’s entry into World War II, an event that eventually called upon every single American to sacrifice.
Not surprisingly, peak usage of the “common good” is 1941, the beginning of America’s entry into World War II, an event that eventually called upon every single American to give, to sacrifice, and to work for the greater good. Like my grandfather who worked a second shift in a Wallingford, Connecticut ball bearing plant, that supplied vital war supplies. Or my Grandmother who planted a Victory Garden. Or my Dad who collected scrap metal for a war drive. Or my Mom who still remembers ration books.
What amazes me about that time in American history is that when the times were darkest, when the war’s outcome was not clear, not at all; when our forebears were challenged by their moment in time to step up and be so much more than they might have imagined they could be—they did it. Yes, there were challenges and failings then too, a less than stellar commitment to the common good. There was war profiteering. Women and minorities were too often exploited for war work and pushed aside at war’s wend. Civil liberties for groups like Japanese Americans were taken away. Yet still, on the whole, America did what it had to do and we are the heirs of that amazing collective effort.
The common good: the time is now. NOW. We can do it. We must do it. For all of us. For those at risk. For future generations.
God give us the strength and the courage to do that which must be done, and always, together.