Toward the Common Good

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To create healthy change in the world, must we become great pioneers or genius innovators or tireless public servants, or could it be more elegantly simple than that?

Join me this week, as we consider ways of leaning into the common good and then taking real action, right where we are.


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When I think of those who have wholeheartedly acted in the interest of the common good, one of the first to come to mind is Jonas Salk. In March of 1953, Dr. Salk announced the development of a vaccine that all but wiped out polio. Near the end of his life, he told an interviewer about a conversation he had with his young grandson who talked with him as he was getting dressed for an awards banquet in his honor.

“Where you going, Grandpa?” his grandson asked him. “To a banquet,” Salk said.

“What’s it for?”

“To honor me for creating the polio vaccine,” Salk told him. “What’s polio?” his grandson asked.

Let that sink in a while.


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Especially during this protracted pandemic moment, isn’t his grandson’s question exactly what someone working to eradicate a disease would want to hear? There’s no way to accurately assess how many lives were touched by Salk’s pioneering discovery. At its peak in the 1940’s and 50’s, at least half a million people a year were paralyzed or killed by the disease. Half a million a year. I grew up with a couple of them.

Had Dr. Salk profited from his vaccine, it’s estimated that he would have received more than seven billion dollars. But because his integrity and social values wouldn’t allow him to do that, he gave it away. When asked if he would patent it, he replied, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

For Salk, the vaccine was to be used for the greater good of humanity. Profiting from it was neither acceptable nor negotiable. When we’re feeling cynical or disappointed or disheartened, it can be so easy to tell ourselves that people like Dr. Salk are of a rare breed.

But are they? Are they really?

If you’re in doubt about it, this might be a good time to take a closer look. In fact, this might be just the right moment to gaze into a mirror until you see yourself clearly. As you look, what do you see? Looking at yourself, do you think that you are essentially different from Dr. Salk? Or that I am? Or perhaps the people you know.

When you consider what he did and how he lived, or the countless others who live out their values by honoring the common good in the ways they can every day, do you really think that are we essentially that different?

Our personal achievements may come nowhere near Salk’s accomplishment with the polio vaccine, and yet I challenge that at our core, we’re not so different at all. Each of us is capable of translating the Light inside us into actions that bring about or enliven greater acceptance, compassion, and understanding. In that sense, each of us is capable of serving the greater good as we are and right where we are.

I’m sure that cynics and some social psychologists might challenge the idea that serving the greater good is built into us, but the evidence fails to bear that out. The opposite shows itself, not only during times of crisis, but in our everyday lives.

A couple of days ago, I was offered a sweet reminder of that.

When my air-conditioning system failed earlier this week, I called a service technician to come out and take a look. I waited for him in front of my house, where we spoke briefly about the problem. Misreading his masked features, I spoke to him in Spanish. He laughed and said, “No. I’m from Israel,” which led to even more conversation and a discovery of common ground.

Once inside, I showed him where the main unit is located, then led him outside to the unit in the back yard. He was only out there a few minutes before he came back in, stopping in the doorway to look at my flower and vegetable gardens one more time. Wearing the expression of a child in a state of wonder, he surprised me.

“I don’t know if you’ll understand this,” he said, “but can I tell you something? In my work, I’m in and out of a lot of houses. A lot of houses. But your house is different. Your paintings. Your photography. The way you have things arranged. Everything. It’s so different.”

He looked around again and then studied me carefully.

“I feel like…” He stopped, then continued. “I feel like I’m in heaven.”

I gasped and felt tears coming.

“I feel safe and calm and peaceful here,” he said. “From the moment I walked in the door. Even before that. This place is so different. It’s a sanctuary.”

I thanked him and told him that my intention from the day I bought the house was that everyone who came here, including me, would have exactly that experience of safety and calm and peaceful acceptance. I want this to be a place where people are free to be exactly who they are.

“Because I paint and create photographs and record podcasts here,” I told him, “I call this place HeartRock studios. But I think of it as “Sanctuary House.” I want it to be a sanctuary—a safe and welcoming place, so I set that as my intention years ago.

That well-considered intention guides everything that happens here.”

“I can feel it,” he said. “I can feel the energy of it. This place… this place is heaven.”

His eyes sparkled as he told me about growing up in Yemen and serving in the Israeli military, and about how his father had taught him to treat everyone he met with respect and dignity and compassion. Then, with his mask still in place, we stood in silence a long while, looking at one another without a word being spoken, yet understanding the connection of our shared humanity.


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Serving the greater good begins with a simple but intentional decision to live that way. We don’t have to spend our lives in the ghettos of Calcutta like Mother Teresa. We don’t have to change

the color of our skin like John Howard Griffin. We don’t have to create life-saving vaccines like Dr. Jonas Salk.

Instead, we can become living “vaccines” of love and compassion and balance and acceptance and understanding, right where we are and every place we go. It starts with decisions that lead to actions, even though the actions are seemingly small or simple ones. Once we make that choice, we can’t predict how many lives our intentions and actions will touch. Yet we can predict what will change if we don’t make that choice.

Nothing. Nothing at all.


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What that in mind, here is this week’s Beautiful Question:

If you were to choose one intention, one elegant decision that helps you lean into the greater good, one action or set of actions that have at least the potential to create a bit of heaven right where you are, what will it be, and how and when will you put it into place?

Let me ask that one more time.

If you were to choose one intention, one elegant decision that helps you lean into the greater good, one action or set of actions that have at least the potential to create a bit of heaven right where you are, what will it be, and how and when will you put it into place?


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As you make those choices and take those steps, write and tell me about them. I’d really like to know.


As I say each week,

My Light with Your Light


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