What would it be like to think
that nothing we may experience
can interfere with our daily lives?
What would it be like to live
in the belief that by accepting
whatever comes to us each day
we are participating
in the natural, ongoing flow
of our world’s creativity?
“It” —whatever it may be--
does not interfere with daily life.
Rather, it delineates it:
it gives it a shape with which
to help create a reality
that brings us closer to the truth
of our participation
in the universal unfolding
of a life that belongs to all.
Every “it” we meet in life
is like a doorway into the truth
of our innate togetherness.
"For Common Things" by J. Purdy
As it has for many others, Jedediah’s Purdy’s book For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today (New York: Vintage Books, 2000) resonates with me as an intellectually and emotionally stimulating social commentary. By turning our attention toward a need to reinvigorate a sense of public responsibility, it encourages a multifaceted stewardship that embraces educational, environmental, cultural, and legal/political issues and concerns. It does this by highlighting certain values and practices that are deemed necessary for the common good but have been neglected in recent history because of an overheated obsession with the pursuit of self-interest.
Near the end of the book there is a summary of these neglected values and practices that situates them in the contexts of three “interrelated ecologies.” The first is an interpersonal, moral ecology, which is fostered by people who exemplify qualities such as generosity, thoughtfulness, commitment, and diligence (p.186). The second is the institutional, social ecology of politics and civic life, which is guided by an informed and passionate engagement with ideas and practices that have a profound effect on public life, such as those surrounding energy production, or matters of genetic engineering. The third ecology pertains to what is normally associated with the word: our natural environment, which is nurtured by interacting with it in ways that are mutually beneficial for all forms of planetary life.
In commenting on these three ecologies, Purdy emphasizes that they all “belong to one another,” and that given this interconnectivity, our private and public lives are inescapably intertwined. Hence the necessity of embracing some form of public responsibility. He urges that “we live our personal lives with an eye to the maintenance of public concerns” in a way that “permits us to move beyond ourselves and back again” so that we can participate as fully as possible in “the necessary work of common things” (p. 189).
To reinforce his call for our ongoing support of “common things,” Purdy explores a number of ethically-charged political issues, ranging from strip mining (coal production) in West Virginia to the use of biotechnologies. He also invokes eminent political philosophers—in particular, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)—as well as notable political activists and intellectuals in recent years, such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Adam Michnik and Czeslaw Milosz in Poland. In short, he presents his ideas as part of a longstanding public dialogue about the importance of understanding the inseparable nature of our individual and social lives.
Purdy suggests that our current neglect of “common things” can be seen in two major aspects of contemporary life. The first of these is a predilection for irony as a way of avoiding or distancing ourselves from the demands and challenges of living in genuinely interdependent ways. The basic premise of irony is that the surface meaning of what is said is significantly different from what the actual meaning is. For instance, it is ironic to say to a group of silent people, “don’t everyone speak at once,” or to walk out into a storm and say, “nice weather we’re having.” As a rhetorical device, irony can be used effectively in the service of projecting strongly held opinions, but when it is adopted as a kind of persona (personal façade) it can also be used as a kind of defense mechanism, which is the kind of irony Purdy refers to when he describes it as “a quiet refusal to believe in the depth of relationships, the sincerity of motivation, or the truth of speech—especially earnest speech” (p. 10). In the context of the individualistic attitudes so prevalent in contemporary lifestyles, it is not surprising that this type of defensive (protective) irony has been widely adopted as a way of avoiding the often messy and difficult ramifications of becoming “too involved” in something.
Purdy refers to a second significant way we neglect the nurturing of what we hold in common as a “reckless credulity,” which he describes as “the embrace of illusions bound together by untested hope.” And the most significant of these illusions is that “life’s best things can be had in solitude” (p. 185). Although I would prefer using a different word than “solitude” (such as “alone”) when speaking about illusory experiences, I think Purdy’s intention is to suggest that life is most meaningful when it is in tune with what is most basic about our existence: our universal interdependence. Indeed, when discussing the work of Michel de Montaigne (a philosopher he obviously admires greatly), he writes, “the interdependence of public and private is so great that speaking of them as separate is often misleading” (p.75). Montaigne’s insight, and Purdy’s elaboration of its substance throughout For Common Things, is clearly one that we need to be reminded of and reflect on. Given the individualistic, intensely “doing-oriented” tenor of contemporary techno-cultures, we are far too prone to seek our own comfort and advantage at the expense of what is reasonably good for others.
“After centuries of identifying triumph with the development of technology,
from the steam engine to the lunar module, our greatest challenge now is
the decision not to do what it is in our power to do. We will have to do so
against our present convenience, for those to whom our comfort could deed
great and uncompensated unhappiness. We will have to do so for common
Jedediah Purdy, For Common Things, p. 184.
Creativity as Teacher
Sometimes we have the good fortune to be touched in a deeply creative way by something that comes to us by chance. I recall, for instance, a little scene from the first season of the popular TV series This is Us that reminded me of a simple but often overlooked truth about ourselves and our world, namely, that any kind (or quality) of artistic expression can be profoundly moving teacher when it originates from a person’s deep sense of interconnectedness with our world.
In this scene, one of the lead characters, Kevin, has a bedtime interaction with his two young nieces in which he shows them an artistic rendering of his reaction to a Broadway play he is rehearsing. The picture is a seemingly chaotic, Jackson-Pollock-like splash of colorful patches covering the entire page, which Kevin describes as a depiction of what life is all about. In a previous scene, there was a rather awkward discussion about death and dying involving Kevin, the two young girls, and their grandfather, who is dying of cancer. In this context, Kevin’s words are a way of saying as simply as possible, that, even though we can’t always explain, or even talk about some subjects coherently—like the topic of death, or how one feels about doing something (like acting in a play)—everything that happens is part of who we are: everything in some way is “us.”
Can any idea point more directly or poignantly to who we are as individuals than one that places each of us where we ultimately belong: in the wholeness of reality? And can there be any lesson with greater import? A poem comes to mind, written by someone who spent a lifetime creating wonderfully nurturing lessons from the material of everyday life.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different,
or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the
fishes, the brutes,
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this
globe or any globe,
All lives and deaths, all the past, present, and future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,
All shall forever span them and compactly hold and
Walt Whitman, from On the Beach at Night Alone
Our Bodies and Technology
Recent advances in biotechnology requires us to reach deeply into our thoughts and feelings about when and how life begins and ends, and to what extent we ought to regulate or control the natural patterns of life that we observe around us. And although the interface of biotechnology and human morality is being explored by academics, social commentators, and to some extent in the political arena, I wonder if the many challenging issues involved are being sufficiently considered by the general populace in ways that promote the kind of informed, creative dialogue that leads to new, life-enhancing insights?
One of the most challenging situations we face today stems from fairly recent enhancements in our understanding of human sexuality and the various (and sometimes complex) roles it can play in forging personal identities. And although great strides have been made in realigning attitudes and behaviors related to these roles, I think a widespread, genuinely equitable acceptance of sexual diversity is still a work in progress. In this regard, however, I was heartened by a recent CBC news item (Nov. 16, 2020) about a group of young people in the Yukon who took it upon themselves to get conversion therapy banned in their Territory—a wonderful example of informed, social responsibility in action.
It is to be expected that, at a time of such rapid and significant change as ours, moral quandaries will abound. A hundred years ago, for instance, who could have anticipated the moral dilemma depicted in a recent article in “The Guardian” (Nov. 16, 2020) about a UK court’s rejection of a transgender person’s wish to be legally recognized as the father of the child he gave birth to. This article clearly draws attention to the radically new situations we face as individuals and societies with respect to the diversity of human sexuality.
Clearly, new insights into and attitudes toward human sexuality are currently challenging many longstanding societal norms. So, it is incumbent that we pay attention to what is happening around us in this area of life, and do so in ways that are well-informed, respectful, and aimed toward enhancing our unity, our fundamental interdependence. Surely, regardless of how we think or feel about any particular issue, this is the kind of socially integrating activity that brings out the best of human creativity, and impels us on our evolutionary path onwards.
In public remarks from late November, 2020, President Barack Obama used the catchy phrase “truth decay” to draw attention to the corrosion of truthfulness as the moral backbone of public discourse. If, as Obama observed, issues, facts, and policies “don’t matter as much as identity and wanting to beat the other guy,” how can we disseminate accurate information in support of meaningful discussions about matters of common concern? Obviously, we can’t. When gamesmanship and the pursuit of self-interest take priority over accepting reality as it comes to us through honest observation, logic, or common-sense, there is no foundation for either correct understanding or genuine dialogue.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, in today’s information-saturated environments, dis-information is an epidemic. Current technological wizardry is so adept at capturing and molding public attention that, with apparent ease, it can instill enough confusion and uncertainty in the public sphere to produce a widespread state of uncertainty, where virtually any idea (even those that are patently false, dangerously divisive, or even ridiculous) can be made to appear plausible. And when public figures or organizations are willing to exploit this manipulative power to further their individualistic interests (rather than the common good), they are indeed acting as information-viruses within the public sphere.
Of course, dishonesty and manipulation in the pursuit of self-interest are aspects of human nature that make regular appearances at various stages of our development, both as individuals and societies. But surely, our tendency to put ourselves first—to do whatever we can to exert ourselves as independent individuals—is only part of a lifelong learning process that ultimately teaches us that we exist primarily as interdependent individuals with unique attributes that belong to the whole of reality. Consider, for instance, how children often test the limits of what they can “get away with” as a way of learning how to belong to their families, that is, as a way of realizing the fundamental significance of sustaining good family relationships. And consider how the transition from adolescence into adulthood (or from any stage of life to another) is most beneficial when it is accompanied by a sense of “fitting in,” of recognizing the value of being a viable and valuable contributor within one’s social milieu. Clearly, at many times throughout our lives (as both individuals and societies) we need to reinforce our awareness of our natural interdependence—an awareness that began in our mothers’ wombs and will end when we finally and fully embrace the inevitability of dying.
As seen in the context of our overall development, the pursuit of exclusive self-interest can be understood as a way of reinforcing what is not fundamental about our existence. In this sense, the widespread fragmentation of societal life and the prospect of planetary devastation we face today can be understood as the tragic consequences of having ignored the basic fact of our interdependence. Given this situation, we urgently need to bolster our ability to communicate in ways that nurture our togetherness by resisting the “truth decay” currently infecting us.
As I reflect on our need to resist the erosion of trust and truthfulness in the public sphere, I imagine that many, if not most of us would think immediately about what we can do about this situation, individually and collectively. However, my philosophical orientation leads me to believe that the kind of resistance needed is not primarily a matter of doing something; it is matter of being someone. Of course, concrete actions need to be taken, but unless they flow from a way-of-being that embraces the fundamental reality of our interdependence, their efficacy will be short-lived at best, and perhaps even harmful in the long run if they result in a kind of non-reflective complacency. If we are genuinely in tune with the interdependence of everyone and everything, I think we can be confident that whatever we do will be aimed toward a universal common good, which implies resisting the “truth decay” running rampant today in ways that suit our individual abilities and circumstances.
As I see it, our main task today (as individuals and societies) is to live in ways that continually remind us of our basic interdependence. And what a difficult it is, given the many temptations to put ourselves first that permeate our cultural environments, and given the potency of modern communication technologies that allow us to do this with relative ease. Moreover, the internet provides us with a novel and incredibly vast operating field within which to exercise our technological prowess—one in which we can assert our individual identities in unprecedented ways. This situation reminds me that we are at a major developmental turning point in terms of expanding our capacity to perceive and understand ourselves and our world, similar to others in our evolutionary past, such as: the emergence of the written word, after a long period of mainly oral communication; the beginnings of our capacity for human language; even that momentous age when our remote ancestors first began to explore our world by walking on two feet.
In the light of our evolutionary history, it is not surprising that the tremendous growth spurt we are experiencing today (in terms of being able to explore ourselves and our world) comes with major challenges, in particular, those related to living in socially responsible ways. To meet these challenges most creatively, we need to be in tune with what is most fundamental about our lives by embracing our interdependence wholeheartedly. A genuine embrace is by nature an expression of good will and togetherness. So, it stands to reason that the more we live as together-minded individuals, the more we will create spaces in which “truth decay” has no place among us apart from reminding us about what to resist.
After Reading “Mozart’s Starling” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Even though I have relished studying, performing, and teaching the music of Mozart for most of
my life, until I picked up the book “Mozart’s Starling” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, I did not know that,
for three years, this universally admired composer kept a starling, probably one of the world’s
most common and least admired birds, as a household pet. Perhaps I had a vague awareness
that Mozart was fond of birds, but if so, I paid scant attention to the fact. And after reading
Mozart’s Starling, I realize that this lack of attentiveness was a significant missed opportunity
for enhancing my understanding of the beauty and bounty of connecting with the natural world
In keeping with the best books I have read, Mozart’s Starling is both informative and inspiring.
It tells two interwoven stories of human-animal friendship: the story of Mozart and his pet starling,
Star, and the story of the author and her pet starling, Carmen. In the telling of these stories, readers
are treated to a plethora of scientifically based information about the life of birds (starlings in particular) and the nature of sound, music, and language, as well as a breathtaking array of lyrical reflections
on such wide-ranging topics as consciousness, creativity, and time.
But of course, at the heart of these stories is a cherished relationship between a person and a bird, with all the joys and woes implied in living day by day with a creature hugely different from oneself. So, for me, the life-enhancing impact of this book stems from its depiction of the extraordinary creativity that flows when we abolish the boundaries that so often keep us from involving ourselves as fully as possible with the world around us.
“Mozart found inspiration in the presence of a common bird. For us, too, the
song of the world so often rises in places we had not thought to look.”
From Mozart’s Starling, p. 75.
Haupt, Lyanda Lynn, Mozart’s Starling (New York: Back Bay Books, 2017).
Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a naturalist, eco-philosopher, and the author of several books. She describes her evolving thoughts as a writer in terms of “cultivating a connection to the ever-present natural world, and crafting a rooted, creative, authentic life.”
About the Blog
Living in the middle of things involves a willingness