You Do Not Have to be Good

I'm no expert on the art of humour. But maybe some of the sharpest acts of comedy arise when - through laughs - we are made starkly aware of a meaning deficit in our society.

This opinion arises out of conversations this week with my work colleagues. We now work in situation where we are connected to a large numbers of schools. And suddenly Chris Lilley's humour is bitingly funny to me in a way I've not fully understood it before. Or more to the point his parody of the schoolgirl with a plethora of overseas sponsor children alerts me to a crisis of meaning. For it seems that our schools have large numbers of students eager to sign up for clever charitable gimmicks. I mean the term "gimmick" clinically rather than critically here. For these charitable acts are purposefully designed for novelty and hence to generate a quantity of engagement.

And undoubtedly they contribute to specific, positive outcomes. But do they really tap into the student's passion, triggering questions within the student of what, uniquely, they are called to contribute? Can they take engagement from a quantity to a quality measure? For most students I suspect not. They are only ever production-line methods, designed to induce action out of our desire to "be good" -as poet Mary Oliver describes that behavioural driver. That's not a bad thing; it's just not the deeper stuff of life. And we get the idea of meaning confused when we think it's about the superficial desire to "be good." I suspect many students - and some school staff - are in that space.

And equally in that space might be many of our companies and their employees. As I've had these conversations with my UCA colleagues I've been simultaneously conversing with another colleague - this time a corporate consultant - about the very same thing. This time though the subject is corporate social responsibility. There are positive signs here, but still - my colleague thinks - too many "responsibility" efforts that are adjunct to core business. Too many droves of corporate employees unleashed on the world to plant trees, paint a fence or talk to a granny, acting at right angles to employee passion or corporate purpose. It's action that doesn't hurt anyone but Oliver's words ring in my ears - a disjointed corporate attempt to "be good."

I am a big fan of Oliver's poem. It cuts to the chase of meaning for me. "You do not have to be good" she exhorts. She then answers the dilemma presented by this blog entry, with - in my opinion - stunning advice.

"You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves."

Practically, this means schooling and corporate life with high levels of integration. So sweet-sixteen schoolgirl doesn't aim to be child sponsorship champion. Instead she's led to discern her own deep concern about income inequality (or whatever it is) and to bring her "passion project" to life through tailored lessons. Science, humanities, arts, sport - are all experienced through the lens of that student's particular gift. And because the "soft animal of her body is loving what it loves" every minute of the day she is engaging these lessons with a distinct level of enthusiasm (literally "in god").

And a junior technology analyst joins the corporate energy provider, not to be nice to a granny, but because he wants every technical solution he develops to make sustainable energy more and more available to a greater diversity of people. He's not "having to be good." He's just doing what he "couldn't not do."

Inspiration for this last phrase we owe to Martin Buber. I think the Jewish mystic was really tapping into the heart of life with his suggestion that life is not about the "have to's, musts or shoulds." Marshall Rosenberg - in his work on non-violent communication - showed us that, these are words of violence. That's because the action that results from these words is driven from somewhere outside the inner-most design of our being. Instead, returning to Buber, life is about that which you cannot, not do....a deep, inner sense and the place where compulsion and radical freedom meet. The resultant action is experienced as deeply meaningful.

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