I recently attended An Evening with Rev. Jim Wallis and Arianna Huffington to listen to a discussion of issues explored by Jim Wallis in his new book, “On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good.” Wallis conveyed that Americans should revive an ancient premise from the Christian gospel — love thy neighbor as thyself — to find common ground for the common good. While the concept of the common good is open to interpretation, we must engage in a national dialogue to search for mutually beneficial and pragmatic solutions within our communities as individuals who live in partnership. He said, “We can do better, and we have to do better.”
Political polarization in Washington, D.C., and across the country limits our progress. We need the courage and civility to develop the best resolutions together for everyone and save future generations from collapse. Huffington and Wallis explained that “mindfulness” could help awaken our own individual selves in order to meaningfully tune in to the social environment and build rapport with others. Wallis said, “Don’t go left. Don’t go right. Go deeper.”
They encouraged people to develop trust within their communities and “transform the stranger into neighbor.” Such a shift in attitude and behavior can seem psychologically challenging for individuals who have embedded hostility towards “the Other.” I think we need to recognize that our historical ways of relating to others are now impractical, and we need a different way to conceptualize how individuals relate to one another. Our communities can benefit by helping others if we learn — as individuals — to love the people around us as our neighbor even if they are vulnerable, disagree with us or seem to live a culturally different lifestyle.
I interpret the common good as a reprieve from what seems to be a potentially permanent social crisis within our political-economic society. All too often, people say how America is the greatest nation on Earth, but I feel as if this is a lie. I want to believe that the United States and its people comprise that pillar of stability for the future of humanity. But I sense that interpersonal strife and shocking ideological gridlock form political divisions at federal, state and local levels that exacerbate and contribute to social and economic peril, which more adversely affects vulnerable American families and communities. Neuroscience helps us understand the brain’s ability to form new neural connections throughout life, called neuroplasticity. Interpersonal neurobiology helps us understand the mind’s ability to “inspire each other to rewire” empathic relationships.
We need to value the importance of human relationships and respect the dignity and worth of every human being. This shift could strengthen our families, communities, the globe and our spirits. In the words of Mr. Rogers, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Matthew W. Braman is a contributing columnist. He is also a master of social work candidate in the NYU Silver School of Social Work.