Working with Human Goodness
Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science, on self protection, good intentions, and what it means to greet one another as fully human.
We need to remember the fact of human goodness.
Of course, human goodness seems like an outrageous “fact,” since every day we are confronted by evidence of the great harm we so easily do to one another. We are numbed by the genocide, ethnic hatred and individual violence committed daily. Of the 240 or so nations in the world, nearly a quarter are currently at war.
In our daily life we encounter people who are angry and deceitful, intent only on satisfying their own needs. There is so much anger, distrust, greed and pettiness that we are losing our capacity to work well together, and many of us are more withdrawn and distrustful than ever. Yet this incessant display of what is worst in us makes it essential that we believe in human goodness. Without that belief, there really is no hope.
There is nothing equal to human creativity, caring and will. We can be incredibly generous, imaginative and open-hearted. We can do the impossible, learn and change quickly, and extend instant compassion to those in distress. And these are not behaviors we keep hidden. We exhibit them daily.
How often during a day do you figure out an answer to a problem, invent a slightly better way of doing something, or extend yourself to someone in need? Then look around at your colleagues and neighbors, and you’ll see others acting just like you—people trying to make a contribution and help others.
In these times of turmoil, we have forgotten who we can be and we have let our worst natures prevail. Some of these bad behaviors we create because we treat people in non-human ways. We’ve organized work around destructive motivations—greed, self-interest and competition—and taken the very things that make us human—our emotions, imagination and need for meaning—and dismissed them as unimportant. We’ve found it more convenient to treat humans as replaceable parts in the machinery of production.
After years of being bossed around, of being told they’re inferior, of power plays that destroy lives, most people are cynical and focused only on self-protection. Who wouldn’t be? This negativity and demoralization is created by the organizing and governance methods in use. People cannot be discounted or used only for someone else’s benefit. If obedience and compliance are the primary values, these destroy creativity, commitment and generosity. Whole cultures and generations have been deadened by such coercion.
But people’s reaction to coercion also tells us a great deal about the goodness of the human spirit. The horrors of the twentieth century show us the worst of human nature and the very best. How do you feel when you hear stories of those who wouldn’t give in, who remained generous and offered compassion to others in the midst of personal horror? The human spirit is nearly impossible to extinguish. Few of us can listen to these stories and remain cynical. We are hungry for these tales—they remind us of what it means to be fully human. We always want to hear more.
To examine our beliefs about human goodness is not merely a philosophical inquiry. These beliefs are critical to what we do in the world; they lead us either to action or retreat. Courageous acts aren’t done by people who believe in human badness. Why risk anything if we don’t believe in each other? Why stand up for anyone if we don’t believe they’re worth saving? Who you think I am will determine what you are willing to do on my behalf. You won’t even notice me if you believe that I am less than you are.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught about the relationship between our beliefs about each other and our willingness to act courageously. He defined our present historic time as a dark age, because we are poisoned by self-doubt and thus have become cowards. In his teachings and work, as Pema Chödrön describes them, he aspired to bring about an era of courage in which people could experience their goodness and extend themselves to others.
Oppression never occurs between equals. Tyranny always arises from the belief that some people are more human than others. There is no other way to justify inhumane treatment, except to assume that the pain experienced by the oppressed is not the same as ours.
I saw this clearly in post-apartheid South Africa. At hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, white South Africans listened to black mothers grieving over the loss of their children to violence, to wives weeping for their tortured husbands, to black maids crying for the children they left behind when they went to work for white families. As the grief of these women and men became public, many white South Africans for the first time saw black South Africans as equally human. In the years of apartheid, they had justified their mistreatment of blacks by assuming that the suffering of blacks was not equal to theirs. They had assumed that blacks were not fully human.
What becomes available to us when we greet one another as fully human? This is an important question as we struggle through this dark time.
In my own organization, we’ve been experimenting with two values that keep us focused on what is best about us humans. The first value is, “We rely on human goodness.” In conversations, even with strangers, we assume that they want from their lives what we want from ours: a chance to help others, to learn, to be recognized, to find meaning. We have not been disappointed.
Our second value is, “We assume good intent.” We try to stop from developing any storyline about another’s motivation. We assume there must be a good reason why they did something that may be hurtful or foolish. It takes mindfulness to stop the stream of judgments that pour from our lips, but when we can, we have been well rewarded. People’s motives usually are good, even when they look hurtful or stupid. And if we pause long enough to ask them what they intended, there is another benefit—we develop a better relationship with them. Working together becomes easier.
I encourage you to try simple practices like these. For the dark times to end, we need to rely as never before on our fundamental and precious human goodness.