It is always a struggle when shared values end up competing with one another. When that happens, it is impossible to determine a right or wrong designation. Both sides of the conflict are valued. It isn’t that one is right and the other is wrong.
Our society is facing many of these dilemmas. In the latest federal election, we heard much about the need to address climate change. Yet, coming through the COVID-19 pandemic, we know firsthand the importance that face-to-face connections contribute to mental health. Curbing travel is a key strategy for addressing climate change. However, travelling to spend time with family and friends is crucial to well being.
Life provides plenty of competing values that must be navigated. Thanksgiving celebrations highlight some of those challenging components. Human society values the ability to provide that which is necessary to enjoy life. This can compete with the value of a concern for others. What is that magic line that balances between self-care and greediness, generosity and careless big-heartedness?
When important values conflict with one another, people of faith look to spiritual teaching for guidance. For the Christian faith, the teachings of Jesus serve as that guide.
Jesus taught us that a singular focus on ourselves is not reflective of God’s plan for the flourishing of human society. Jesus taught people to love their neighbours as they love themselves (Mark 12:30-31), a balance of self care and concern for others. This balance is again articulated when Jesus instructed people to treat others as they would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12). The Apostle Paul followed the teaching of Jesus when he instructed people to not only seek their own interests, but also the interests of others (Philippians 2:4).
This balance of caring for self and others has often been called the “common good” principle. It is a teaching that helps us understand that our welfare is bound to the welfare of all. We are members of a community. So, when we care and nurture the health of a community we nurture and care for ourselves.
It is like the old farmer who consistently grew a crop of corn that always won first prize at the fall fair. The corn was reliably bright yellow, juicy, and sweet. The corn became a legend.
After a decade of annually winning the first prize, a reporter from the city was sent out to cover the story. During the interview the farmer was asked to share the secret of growing such a constant exemplary crop.
The humble farmer surprised everyone by revealing his technique. His time proven method for producing first prize corn was to share the best of the seed corn with the neighbours.
The reporter was stunned. “How can you afford to share your best seed corn with the same people you compete against every year?”, the reporter asked.
The farmer replied, “Don’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it about from field to field, farm to farm. If my neighbours grow inferior corn, the cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my fields. If I want to grow good corn, I must help my neighbour to grow good corn” (2020, Catholic Health Association of the United States).
This is a good example of thinking about the common good. When we all benefit – we will all benefit.
This contrasts with an individualistic culture, where everyone is only concerned about themselves.
Thinking about the common good requires those who have a surplus to express a commitment to ensure those who are vulnerable can also gain what they need to fully flourish.
My prayer is that we continue to grow into communities where all have plenty for which to give thanks. Then God is honoured: because selfish focus has not polluted self care, and individualism has not spoiled mutual concern.