The Heart of Social Responsibility


    One day in St. Mike’s grammar school, the parish priest gave a little talk about what a good thing it was for us kids to give to the collection basket every Sunday. I raised my hand and asked what if somebody gave a dollar infected with smallpox and the congregation died, would that still be a good thing? The poor padre thought I was being a wiseguy, but I wasn’t (well, maybe a little). Even then I must have sensed that behavior without consciousness was incomplete.

    Among the many things we can celebrate about humankind is our growing commitment to what is being called "social responsibility." You could probably find a "socially responsible" approach to almost every human activity, from conception to cremation, which may make this movement among the most powerful in the world’s history. Still, "social responsibility" is a relatively new phenomenon, and so we continue to discover the depth of its meaning.

    For instance, we are learning that social responsibility begins not with changing a single thing about the world, but rather with asking ourselves: Who am I committed to being?

    We are learning that when we "make the world a better place" because we are angry, say, to pick a common motivation – what we’re doing as much as anything else is perpetuating anger. And if that weren’t enough, we are learning that making friends with anger (one of the indispensable steps toward actually managing it) may be harder than quelling terrorism. How many of us light a candle for the planet while we hate those goddamn polluters?

    When the Dalai Lama met a Tibetan monk who had been imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese for several years, His Holiness asked the monk if he had been afraid. The monk replied, "My only fear was that I wouldn’t have compassion for my captors." We do ourselves a disservice if we think of this monk as somebody special. He’s just a guy trying to live the best life he knows how, like any of us. He knows that his life is not about his captors (the world outside of him), it is about himself – about who he is committed to being regardless of anything else.

    A company here in Vermont has taken the courageous step of naming itself Seventh Generation, bowing to the Native American principle of making decisions with the awareness of our place at the center of a continuum that spans three generations before us and three generations after. This principle is especially powerful, because it is impossible to know specifically how to realize it. Its value stems from how much the attempt to see our choices in a larger context becomes a conscious practice by every person who contributes to the organization’s well-being.

    Today, we are learning that the measure of health, whether of an individual or the planet, is defined primarily by one thing: Resilience – the ability to respond in a positive way to ANY eventuality.

    A healthy enterprise, then, like a healthy person, is one engaged in a never-ending assessment of those fundamental questions of purpose, values and goals – and from that assessment, linking commitments to action. The key modifier here is "never-ending."

    It was a different, though equally well-intentioned, priest who, at my father’s wake, made the offhand remark that we are all sinners. I was 27.

    "Speak for yourself," I said to him.

    "Are you saying you’ve never sinned?" he asked.

    "Oh no, Father," I said. "You name it, and I’m sure I’ve either done it or wanted to. But I’ve also played a lot of basketball, and I don’t consider myself a basketball player."

    As we grow in our understanding of what it takes to be socially responsible, we are learning that organizations that stagnate or die do so, at least in part, because they have neglected to address who they truly are. Their focus is primarily external, rather than within. Many of us who live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau calls it, do so for the same reason – shying away from the question that lies at the heart of not only social responsibility, but of life itself: Who will I be or die trying?

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    Steve Roberts
    Steve Roberts is the author of Cool Mind Warm Heart, a collection of essays, stories, and photographs of stone sculptures he builds on his Vermont farm. Steve serves leaders by painting their portrait in words, helping them grow fresh insight to the meaning of their experiences -- including the gifts of adversity -- and thus answer ever more deeply what may be life's most important question: Who am I? Steve can be found on the web at Copyright © 2006 Steve Roberts. All rights reserved


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