An Unwavering Commitment to the Common Good

This post is a continuation of my previous post: Personal Responsibility.

 

Growing-up, Senator Cory Booker was told over and over about the importance of taking ownership of his actions, his efforts, and his attitude. His mother demanded that he put his best effort into anything he did, whether it was cleaning the garage or going to school. His family demanded the best effort he could put forward because it was only through excelling personally that they believed one could make the biggest difference in the world. By accepting personal responsibility, one could give back to the community and put oneself in position to truly better society. Booker writes,

 

“My family also insisted that personal ethic must be seamlessly bound with a larger communal ethic, a sense of connectedness: a recognition that we are all part of something and have reaped the benefits of the struggles waged by those who had an unwavering commitment to the common good. From my earliest days, I was informed that I was the result of a conspiracy spanning apace and time—that billions of meritorious actions past and present yielded the abundance I enjoy.”

 

Booker’s quote ties into a growing belief that I have developed recently, that society only moves forward because some people decide to shoulder incredible burdens and responsibility, not for their own glory, but because they see the incredible benefit our society will receive. They may not be treated well, but they understand that society needs someone to put forth great effort even if there is little direct reward for them. This was true at our nation’s founding, and Joseph Ellis in his book The Quartet explained the incredible sacrifices and burdens carried by individuals to make American nationhood a possibility. Robert Morris essentially funded the Continental Army for two years with his own finances, despite public belief that he was profiting from the war for independence. In my own life I have seen this in the numerous sports coaches who served as mentors and teachers for me through the years, from my first basketball coach to my high school cross country and track and field coaches. With little reward and often much criticism from team members and parents, my coaches shouldered a responsibility to not just teach me sports, but to provide life lessons and moral guidance. Whether it is Robert Morris funding the fledging government under the Articles of Confederation, or a high school sports coach working with young children to help them grow, society demands that some individuals go beyond what is required of them to shoulder a greater portion of society’s demands.

 

The lessons I have learned through reading and sports experiences were taught to Booker growing up. His parents helped him see that his actions, and indeed his entire life, took place in a community, not a vacuum. Everything he did and every opportunity was the result of great people making sacrifices for a better tomorrow. Booker’s parents had been pioneers in the business world  as African American leaders in their companies, and they had benefitted by the few brave people who had stood up and carried the Civil Rights movement forward.

 

A line from Booker’s father is shared in the book to represent the humility with which his family approached the world and to represent the sense that his family had benefitted from those who came before them and laid the groundwork for their current success. “Son, don’t you dare walk around this house like you hit a triple, ‘cause you were born on third base.”

 

While Booker’s family stressed the importance of responsibility and taking ownership of one’s actions, behaviors, and decisions, they also recognized the importance of building an unwavering commitment to the common good into everything they did. Without focusing on community and without recognizing the incredible benefit that we receive from living in America, we risk living with an overinflated ego that leads to false beliefs of our own abilities and hides the efforts of other people to make our lives possible.

Personal Responsibility

How we think about personal responsibility seems to be a driving factor in the decisions we make about society. We are a group of individuals working in our own best interest, but with our interests moderated through a social union to ensure that as we pursue our best interest, we do not unreasonably impede others or damage their health, resources, or wellbeing. For many, our success is seen as a result of our own effort, attitude, and determinism, and without taking responsibility for our individual actions we can never reach our full potential, and we will never uphold our end of societal success.

Senator Cory Booker addresses the role that personal responsibility has played in his life in his book United, detailing the lessons learned from his parents. He writes, “My family worked to have me understand that there are two interrelated ethics critical for citizenship. One is that we all must take responsibility for ourselves, invest in our own development, strive for personal excellence. My family taught me that we are all responsible for our own well-being, our growth, and most of all our attitude: The most consequential daily decision you make, I was told, is the attitude you choose as you engage in your day” (emphasis in original).

Booker continues to give examples of his mother teaching him about excellence and how he learned the importance of always doing our best work, because someone was always counting on us to do our best. His family provided him lessons with actors from the Civil Rights Movement as models, giving Booker a powerful message to endure challenges and struggles and to take personal responsibility for actions and decisions because it is in the best interest of society.

The quote above, in Booker’s emphasized section on attitude, reflects stoic principles outlined by Marcus Aurelius in his writing, Meditations. Aurelius wrote about the ways in which our attitude changes our constitution and our demeanor for the day. If we choose to leave the comfort of our bed knowing that we will meet people who do not hold our standards, but that we ourselves are not lessened by those who do not hold to our ideals, then we can move forward with an attitude that lifts all. If we reflect on our perception we can identify the challenges we face, and turn our obstacles into pathways toward success, bearing nobly that which others see as poor fortune.

Recognizing that societal growth and progress requires our best is a powerful motivator for us to strive toward greatness. Our full potential is the only thing that can carry forward others, open new doors for ourselves, and lay the stones to create paths for other. When we choose to see this, we have a reason to contribute to society rather than to expect society to provide for us. Reflecting on our attitude and deciding that we will approach each day and each decision in a positive light will help us advance and grow for the betterment of all.

Correcting Mistakes Continued

Bob Schacochis continues in his letter to James Harmon published in Harmon’s book Take My Advice to explain a lesson he learned about making and correcting mistakes.  As a young college student working as a carpenter Schacochis learned a lesson in excellence when his work was corrected by a carpenter he was shadowing.  Schacochis had put something together and not taken the care and time to go back over his work to fix his errors, which led to a brief lecture that stuck with him his whole life.  The carpenter explained that the worst carpenters and the best carpenters all make mistakes, but that the best carpenters find their mistakes and know how to correct them.  Years later when Schacochis was standing on scaffolding inches away from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the carpenter’s words came back to him. He gazed in awe at Michelangelo’s work, and was amazed by the fact that up close, you could see the spots where the artist had repainted and corrected his mistakes in an attempt to perfect his art.
What Schacochis learned is summed up in the following quote, “In fact, I don’t even think learning from mistakes is the right focus to begin with, since it infers there is such a thing as a path to infallibility, which is both a simple-minded and dangerous notion.” This quote helps me see that it is ok for me to make mistakes as long as I can correct those mistakes.  Learning from the mistakes is an important thing, but I should not approach life as though I can learn from one mistake and forever avoid making similar mistakes and lead a perfect life.  For Schacochis mistakes are to be expected if one is constantly pursuing excellence and trying to be the best that they can be.  When you try to do more, and push yourself to new levels you will make mistakes as part of the growing process. There is definitely learning involved, but mastery of anything means that you know how to correct mistakes, as apposed to knowing how to avoid all mistakes.  A world without mistakes according to Schacochis is a world of complacency and mediocrity where one settles into a routine that does not change nor challenge the individual.  The mistakes are not admitted or even noticed, so there is nothing for the individual to correct.
Schacochis’ quote shows that it is ok for one to make mistakes, and that it is even expected that one will make mistakes as they pursue excellence in everything they do.  If one sets high expectations and pushes themselves to constantly improve and be better, then they will learn how to correct mistakes, not how to live a life that is free from mistakes.  When we stop striving for excellence we stop making mistakes because we stop trying to achieve more. A life of no mistakes is one where we let mistakes slip by, even though we know how to make something better or improve what and who we are. In this way Schacochis is encouraging us to push ourselves and accept our mistakes since life will never be perfect. Along the way as we continue to grow we will learn not how to live a perfect life free from mistakes, but how to correct our mistakes as we demand excellence.