“You see, I want a meaningful life, and that is why I am looking for work in the non-profit sector.” To my friend, the owner of a company that sells its products all over the world, the statement seemed stark, and disquieting. One of the most visionary of my friends, he is someone with a remarkably kind and generous heart, seeing hope and need wherever it is to be found, and stepping in with personal persistence and surprising grace.
He and I have talked about this for years now, as the conversation has been repeated again and again. Almost monthly a parent asks him to meet with their newly-graduated son or daughter, sure that time with this very good man will be “good” for their child, now off into the world beyond the university. Eerily the words are the same, time and again the young person sure that a meaningful life matters and that meaning is not to be found in the marketplace.
What has happened to our common sense of a good life? Much could be said, but fundamentally it is a generational misreading of moral meaning, reflecting a deep disconnect between the way the world really is, with its meaning for all labor, even and especially for work that makes things that people buy. For good reasons, and not, Wall Street has become iconic for self-absorbed short-sightedness—with little if no interest in the common good.
What is a good life, anyway? What is required for us to have a good life? How do we know when we have a good life? Answering these questions well is a perennial problem, for everyone everywhere.
Recently David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the New York Times exploring this phenomenon. In “The Service Patch,” he wrote, “Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person…. Around what ultimate purpose should your life revolve? Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops? These, too, are not analytic questions about what to do. They require literary distinctions and moral evaluations….”
For years we have asked the question, “Do you have a telos that is sufficient to meaningfully orient your praxis over the course of life?” Or more simply, “Why do you get up in the morning?” The question probes our deeper reasons for being, of what matters to us, and why. It even presses us to answer questions about the ways we define success. Has my life mattered? Is what I am doing important? And of course, “What is important?”
Brooks sums it up this way. “It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.”
We were intrigued by Brooks’ essay, and decided to ask a group of friends from across the country to respond. They represent a spectrum of people with lives in the for-profit and the non-profit worlds, men and women who each care deeply about the world, about the way it turns out, and in and through their vocations are giving themselves to the work of common grace for the common good.
So, read them one and all. We have given Fred Smith the first place, standing between the two worlds as he does, that of the marketplace and of philanthropy, of those whose vocations make money and those whose vocations need the money of others. An elder in the city gates of our society, he reads deeply and widely, and has an unusual vision of the good life, seeing that it matters for all of us, even as achieving it is very complex and often heart-rending, especially for those who suffer and want. We could all learn a lot from him, listening over his shoulder and through his heart.