What is good for the world

I like this quote from Wendell Berry:

We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.

It reminds me of a thought experiment I’ve run through with all my children: would you rather live in a world where everyone else is looking out for you, at the cost of looking out for everyone else, or a world where everyone (including you) puts Number One first? The point is not to show how the world is, but how it ought to be—selflessness is a foundational principle in God’s economy.

Of course there’s always the problem of others who behave differently. What difference does it make to live for the good of the world when all around us live for the good of themselves? How can I survive in a world where everyone looks out for Number One without putting my own interests first? I have no answer besides: taste and see. Spend some time living for others, and notice the difference it makes for you. Learn to take pleasure in making things easier for others, and you’ll have endless opportunities for taking pleasure.

Which reminds me of this anecdote, one I’ve quoted before, which I would probably have carved on my headstone if it weren’t so long, and if I were going to have a headstone:

Then Allen said, “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.

“But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”

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3 thoughts on “What is good for the world

  1. I don’t know what to say about this, really. I’ve read a lot of Christian literature on service to others (both current and historic) and I guess the issue is that in fact our lives are rarely reciprocal. Maybe that’s my “self” speaking. The thing, though, is that some people need more, and some people do simply take, and take, and take. After many months of simply doing what others need of me I’m at the breaking point and part of the problem was that I dropped everything to help. Right before Christmas it all fell apart — and I think part of the problem is that it’s not just doing for person A or person B, but that person A and person B have their own priorities and are also implicated with / partially in conflict with each other. I agree that the self is a problem, but i don’t think it’s all bad. And I don’t know how you get around the problem of the person who is both sane and inconsiderate of others.

  2. Servetus,

    After I published this post I saw that you and I had discussed the Allen anecdote the last time I posted it. I don’t think I’m communicating my own understanding of selflessness very well—perhaps because my thinking is mushy or inconsistent, I don’t know.

    But I don’t think that putting the interests of others above your own puts you at the mercy of the other’s whims—you’re still the one who judges what their interests are, and how to meet them, if at all. I’ve known people who are clearly interested in turning my willingness to help to their own advantage—and I don’t generally give those people what they want, at least not just because they want it.

    In a New Yorker profile I just read (and will discuss tomorrow) philosopher Elizabeth Anderson proposes the idea that the right way to deal with inequality is not to address the outcome (i.e. redistribute wealth) but to remove obstacles keeping others from achieving better outcomes—if that’s what they choose to do.

    That resonates with my own notion of selflessness—I’ll go above and beyond to make it possible for you to get to what I think is a better place (which may or may not involving accepting my offer of help on my terms), but I won’t do what you ask of me just because you think it will be a better place.

    Or maybe: there is a right way to respond to a need, which can be accepted or thwarted by the one in need. You’re only responsible for the first part.

    Please don’t take this as addressing any specific circumstances. I only know my own—and don’t even understand those very well!

  3. I’ll wait for the next post. I vaguely remember the previous conversation, probably about my dad and the floors. Things are so much more complicated / worse now.

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