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One of my favorite writers is conservative columnist David Brooks. Last Friday he opened his column in the New York Times this way:

"Western society is built on the assumption that people are fundamentally selfish. ... But this worldview is clearly wrong. In real life, the push of selfishness is matched by the pull of empathy and altruism."

We are wired for love and connection. We want to cooperate and help others. It is in our genes.

Brooks cites an illustration from the science-trained monk Mitthieu Ricard's study "Altruism." "If an 18-month-old sees a man drop a clothespin she will move to pick it up and hand it back to him within five seconds, about the same amount of time it takes an adult to offer assistance." Ironically, "if you reward a baby with a gift for being kind, the propensity to help will decrease, in some studies by up to 40 percent."

Brooks' column argues convincingly that when we expect people to be selfish, they will be. When we allow people to be natural, they behave generously.

Some examples: When day care centers started fining parents for late pickups, the late pickups doubled. When the Boston fire department ended unlimited sick days, imposing a limit with penalties, firefighters called in sick on Christmas and New Year tenfold.

Why? Turning behavior into a transaction destroys our natural inclination toward "reciprocity, service and cooperation." We are naturally considerate and willing to sacrifice. In our normal, moral perspective, humans tend to try to do the right thing, to do our best. But evoking a transactional incentive changes our lens. Whenever we see things through an economic lens, we ask, "What's in this for me?" Motivation changes, and motivation is everything.

Scripture says that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. Healthy Christian spirituality asserts that our essential nature is good. We are created by love, in love, for love. Healthy, natural human growth is our growth in love.

Benedictine contemplative Thomas Keating outlines classic Christian theology in his "Guidelines for Christian Life, Growth, and Transformation" from the Appendix of his classic "Open Heart, Open Mind." ( He opens his 42 guidelines with this:

  1. The fundamental goodness of human nature, like the mystery of the Trinity, Grace, and the Incarnation, is an essential element of Christian faith. This basic core of goodness is capable of unlimited development; indeed, of becoming transformed into Christ and deified.

  2. Our basic core of goodness is our true Self. Its center of gravity is God. The acceptance of our basic goodness is a quantum leap in the spiritual journey.

Of course, none of us comes to full reflective self-consciousness with this sense of goodness intact. The vulnerability of childhood exposes us to injuries of heart, body and spirit that make us feel incomplete, separate, alienated and guilty. We experience a core sense of separation.

The healthiest antidote to the alienation we experience is a return to our original, natural state. "Our basic core of goodness is dynamic and tends to grow of itself," says Keating. "Overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21)

The insight for our common life is that we can improve our world through loving regard for all people and by expecting and inspiring the best from them. People have a natural longing to do good.

Our church has a feeding program that serves a hot lunch on Mondays and Wednesdays. We never lack for volunteers. A natural, human spirit of hospitality and generosity permeates. One guest commented to one of the women servers, "You ladies are saving our souls one lunch at a time."

Jesus is our example. He befriended outcast, sinner and foreigner, seeing each person as another of God's children. He only scolded those who tried to enforce morality like it was an economic system, making some winners and others losers.

Jesus' conversation with a wealthy man seems instructive. The man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. The man's lens is transactional. He's followed the law. He wants to earn his way. But it doesn't work that way. Jesus tells him to sell everything. The man can't. True life, full life is not transactional. It's free. You don't earn it. It is given to you.

We become more human, more humane, when we stop keeping score and when we act out of our natural human inclination to be good. When we are oriented to do good and to expect goodness from others, we liberate humanity's best instincts.

Commentary on 07/12/2016

Print Headline: The good in mankind

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