When I brought up the idea of Being For The World, I discussed it in pretty abstract terms. Like Justice, Goodness and other concepts of that ilk, it might easily conjure up different images to different people. It’s one those notions that while it sounds good might leave you scratching your head about what I mean. And how would you go about the business of being for the world if you were so inclined? While the topic is worth a book of its own, I’d like to toss out a few rough thoughts.
Most importantly, I see Being For The World as a general orientation to life more than anything. It’s being pointed in the direction of giving to the world more than taking from it, as in John Kennedy’s line about asking “not what your country can do for you.” Like in an interview in the bonus features of the film Happy, producer Tom Shadyac says that it’s like there’s a switch you can flip in your life, between being worried about what your getting from life to how you can contribute.
On the Being For Oneself side of the switch you’ll find a lot of the Wall Street crowd with their high speed trading, dark money pools and exotic derivatives all of which are designed to squeeze as much money out of the world as possible for their own punchbowls. Or the corporate CEO’s who earn 354 times what their average workers do (in 1980 it was 42 times).
Or at the outer reaches of the curve, the despots who treat the countries they rule as udders to be milked; here, one can’t help but think of Kim Jong Un, who fed his uncle to a cage full of 120 dogs who hadn’t eaten in 3 days, in order to “send a message that you better not cross the leader.” Although Kim might be at the extreme end, he shares company with a sizeable number of fellow kleptocrats in modern history.On the flipped side of that switch, the Being For The World side, at the other extreme end you find the Florence Nightingales and Martin Luther Kings, people who put their lives in service to the world.
It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing venture. You don’t need to become Mahatma Gandhi in order to Be For The World. But it does mean looking for more than self-satisfaction from life, it means also seeing your life as an opportunity to benefit the world.
Recently I came across an excellent example from neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen. In her article, “Secrets of the Creative Brain” in The Atlantic, she talks about switching from studying literature to studying neuroscience: “(after) a book I’d written about John Donne was accepted for publication by Princeton University Press…instead of feeling elated I felt almost ashamed and self-indulgent. Who would this book help? What if I channeled the energy and effort I’d invested in it into a career that might save people’s lives. Within a month I made the decision to become a research scientist.”
The deeper point isn’t the specific case but the whole mindset involved in making her decision, the feeling that she wanted her life to serve the world and not just her own personal interests. She felt so strongly about this that she changed her life’s direction. I don’t believe, though, that people need to feel ashamed or self-indulgent for making self-interested choices that aren’t harmful to others.
The wish to contribute is best inspired by a positive desire to serve, not by negative feelings like guilt. I think that the Being For part of Being For The World is as important as The World part. I think that it’s better to act towards promoting a positive development, advocating for what one believes to be most desirable, than struggling against what one opposes.
A recent news story struck me as contrasting with Nancy Andreasen’s wish to contribute to the world. An authentic Lone Ranger outfit sold at a Texas auction for $195,000, $45,000 above the high end pre-auction estimate. It was purchased from the estate of a Bob Davis who purchased it in 1999 for $100,000. According to his son Earl, Bob Davis, a big fan of the original show “really wanted it so he got into a bidding war to buy it.”
While it’s not a particularly unusual or extreme example, I think it’s still illuminating to compare these 2 different ways of being in the world. One involves someone using their life to try to lessen human suffering. The other involves people obsessed with a personal desire to own an artifact, an artifact that in itself provides no functional benefit, whose pleasure is derived from solely the sense of owning it. Further, this artifact is not a collectible with historic or scientific significance but is a remnant of a television show.
While this might just be seen as harmless indulgence, I think it’s worthwhile to consider both the money expended as well as the investment of human interest and energy involved in pursuing and attaining this costume and then comparing it to Nancy Andreassen’s investment of her life.
As I said, Being For The World is best thought of as an orientation. It can be expressed in many different ways, in many different contexts and to many different degrees. The underlying idea is that one’s acts express concern for more than what’s in it for oneself.
This can apply even in the nitty gritty world of business. Corporations are generally focused upon pursuit of self-interest with concerns like return on equity, profit margin and share price often predominate. But corporations do differ in their approaches, and are capable of being for the world to some degree relative to other corporations.
Some, like Amazon, take pride in their customer service. Corporations can also be concerned for quality of their products, the welfare of their employees and the communities they operate in and their impact on the environment. Starbucks, for example, was recently given credit for treating their employees as partners more than most companies do.
To Be For The World, corporations would need to become less focused on things like quarterly performance, return on equity, lobbying government to gain favorable treatment and manipulating the media. CEO’s would need to be less devoted to their stock options, golden parachutes, offshore bank accounts, collections of modern art and million square foot mansions.
Rather corporations would need to focus on how what they do benefits the world. A food company would pay less attention to how many more boxes of cereal they sell and how their gross margins are increasing. They would measure their efforts on how successfully they are providing wholesome, nutritious reasonably priced food, on how they well they are feeding the world, contributing to it’s health and well-being and how they are promoting the flourishing of their employees and the communities they reside in.
In the longer term, advancing human flourishing requires transforming corporations from instruments of accumulation to vehicles of service. The power of corporations is in their ability to organize and direct human effort to purposes. But those purposes need to be more to the benefit of the common good than the enrichment of the few.
There are some models emerging that move in that direction, including employee-owned corporations, co-operatives and newer developments like For Benefit Corporations, Low-Liability Limited Companies (L3C’s), B Corporations, and Flexible Corporations. These represent the stirrings of a movement towards corporate forms with goals beyond just than profit and accumulation, with service as an intrinsic to their mission.
From an individual point of view, the question arises of how to Be For The World. The simplest answer is: any which way you can. There are an endless number of things that would be worth doing in the world, a plethora of ways to contribute. One doesn’t have to wash the feet of the poor and tend to lepers to Be For The World, though those who serve those ways merit our acclaim.
One could Be For The World by working for the environment, fighting for human rights or social justice, by providing better service or better products, by being a peace-maker, by educating people, by informing people, by adding to human knowledge, by making inspiring music, by making people laugh.
The important part is the intention to contribute to the well-being of the world. How one goes about this is an individual matter. It arises as a response to the world, from the way one is stirred to act. And that is channeled by what one feels one has to offer, what one can best give.
One approach is to look at what needs done, what are the woes of the world. The world surely has no shortfall of problematic areas, wounds that could use dressing. I think that in particular that we need to work for the betterment of those who are unserved by the world, those who don’t have the ways and means for self-flourishing. Our goal should making the world work for everyone.
Any aspiration to Be For The World depends on the support of 2 elements: reason & compassion. Compassion, our concern for the welfare of other beings, our caring about the world is the fuel that drives it. But this desire to benefit must be guided by the understanding of reason in order to be of any use, especially as the world becomes increasingly complex.
The need for reason doesn’t mean one needs to be scientistic, to undertake a sophisticated research project or perform stochastic analysis in order to act. It means reason in the deepest, most human sense of the term, developing one’s best understanding of the causes and conditions involved in a circumstance, a thorough thinking through of alternative ways of skinning the cat and a determination of how best to proceed.
Acting just for the sake of acting mostly functions to make oneself feel good. While Random Acts of Kindness are a nice thing, I think that purposive acts of kindness are an even better way to benefit the world, because they are directed where they are most needed in a way that is most likely to help.
Service is often thought of in terms of charity, in giving aid to those in need. But I think that while sometimes it is urgent and called for, charitable action is vulnerable to being paternalistic, of reducing the receipents to woeful beings should feel lucky for their handout.
The goal of service should be enablement, helping those who aren’t properly served by the world to become their own agents of flourishing. And aid should always be about what the beneficiaries wish for themselves.
If you truly want to Be For The World then you will want the maximum payoff from your efforts, you want the investment of your time and energy to benefit the world as much as possible. To make that happen it’s important to look as deeply as possible at the underlying causes and conditions producing the circumstances you wish to change.
I believe that too much energy is expended trying to alleviate symptoms and apply band-aid fixes to problems in the world. Too little energy is devoted to really exploring and addressing the root causes of the ills that plague the world. That ‘s why, in this country, we spend so much money sequestering people into prisons, rather than figuring out how to enable the people who end up there to lead meaningful lives, and how to create a society that functions for the mutual benefit of all.
It’s also important at look at the scope of our Being For The World. There are a tremendous number of people who in some fashion act to serve something beyond themselves. They are involved with issues like education, libraries, crime, the environment and many others. All of their wonderful work keeps the world knit together. Often the focus of these efforts is the local community, though it may extend outward to region, state and nation.
I’d like to suggest that our aspirations to serve might sometimes have too narrow a focus, be too limited to matters close at hand. Being For The World ultimately means Being For The Whole World. If you really appreciate that what defines us as human is that we all share the existential experience of living as a human being, that our common humanity is more significant than those things which still divide us, then concerns like “the national interest” will become less important and “the human interest” will be what really matters.
That doesn’t mean that anyone needs to play Atlas and put the whole world on their shoulders. Being For The Whole World doesn’t mean needing to be personally responsible for every single cubic centimeter of the earth. What we really should aspire to is a World of Being For Each Other, with that meant to be inclusive of each and every other.
At heart, my idea of Being For The World is more expansive than simply service, as terrific as that is. I think of it as the intent to make a difference in the world, as a striving to help create a world of deep human flourishing, a world that truly works for everyone and for all of life.
When we look at the world not as being inalterably mired in its current state, but as a world capable of being nudged towards the way we would have it be, towards a harmonious human world working together so that all can enjoy satisfying lives.
Let’s see the world the way a group of 12 men saw it in 1787 in a London printing shop when they gathered to start the world’s first grass roots movement, the movement to abolish slavery (as beautifully detailed in Adam Hochschld’s “Bury The Chains”). They didn’t look as slavery as the way of the world, as a necessary evil, but as something that shouldn’t exist, that should be made to end.
Let’s look at the world like Martin Luther King did when marching in Birmingham, or Gandhi leading the Salt March to Dandi. Or when British lawyer Peter Berenson wrote a letter titled “The Forgotten Prisoners” to the Observer newspaper, launching the “Appeal For Amnesty Campaign” which evolved into the Amnesty International organization. As Berenson had said, “Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a story from somewhere of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government […] The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust could be united into common action, something effective could be done.”
If we’re going to Be For The World, let’s really be for it. Let’s not be timid in our goals. Let’s not settle for small ambitions and minor victories. Let’s be bold champions of human possibility. Let’s dream wonderful visions of the world, that world we crave in the deepest part of our inner being. And let’s, each in our own special way, urge the world towards those visions, towards what it might become.
- The Purpose of Service
- An End To War