Opinion

Spiritual lessons for the Common Good | Interfaith | April 30

After celebrating the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, it has become obvious that what all Earthlings have most in common is the planet itself.

But a controversial theory, called “The Tragedy of the Commons” by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968, suggests that human short-term selfish interests are often at odds with long-term care of the Common Good.

Even Aristotle noticed, “That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.”

Despite many examples that disprove this premise, it still raises some significant spiritual issues that point toward the further evolution of our human enterprise. For that to unfold well, we must learn both lessons from our mistakes and some new routines on the dance floor of life. I also hope we can get better at envisioning what the “Common Good” really is.

So maybe Spiritual Lesson No. 1 is about how we grow toward an ever-larger idea of “self,” promoting deeper awareness of the oneness of life. The Common Good wants to be radically inclusive. Extending our sense of identity expands our religious capacity to embrace the Earth in all its diversity.

In fact, lesson No. 2 might be about that diversity, as in how we humans fundamentally reflect the bio-diversity of the planet’s ecosystems, which are indisputably healthier with greater variation.

So embracing diversity becomes not just a nice gesture, but an essential capacity that strengthens the survival of our species, in tune with the abundant life all around us, the Great Commons.

Abundant until we nearsightedly squeeze the life out of, say, the salmon that once flourished in the Puget Sound but now gasp for survival as an afterthought of human “progress.”

Lesson No. 3 could be about our relationship with the non-human elements that share this global commons with us, such as the cedar, whose roots go a lot deeper into this land than those of us latecomers.

The spiritual lesson is that an inclusive Wisdom of the Commons will absorb insights from many angles, and listen with “inner ears.”

As des-cribed by Columbia Univer-sity’s Center for Research on Envir-onmental Decisions (www.cred.columbia.edu), “Commons dilemmas describe conflicts [whereby] the benefits of exploitation go to individuals... while the costs of exploitation are distributed among all. ...Environmental decisions pose a similar dilemma, in that an indi­vidual’s benefit may or may not be the same as what benefits society.”

Might lesson No. 4, then, be about our collective maturity to perceive value and make adjustments on the basis of other than purely personal gain? Our behaviors give vivid testimony (or not) to how we all live and have our being in a great common stream of life that feeds our souls and sponsors an enlightened self-interest writ large, planetary even.

I think, for instance, of the devoted, multiyear collaborations to repopulate some of our island creeks with new generations of salmon.

I eagerly assist one such project with unabashed religious motivation. Our Unitarian Universalist 7th Principle of “respect for the interdependent web of life of which we are a part” is very present in my spiritual discipline as I care for thousands of chum fry at one beautiful crook of Cooper Creek.

I have happily learned from my interfaith friends that there are similar inclinations in other religions. It may appear to be written in stone that we attend the least to that which is shared by the most, but I say it is not written in our hearts. We can learn a new dance, to the music of the spheres. Play on, maestro.

Jaco B. ten Hove is co-minister (with spouse Barbara) at Cedars Unitarian Universalist Church (www.cedarsuuchurch.org). He is also on the steering committee of the B.I. Energy Challenge.

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