Your Part of the Common Good

What life-altering things should every human ideally get to experience at least once in their lives?

It's not ideal, but natural reality: our society puts up barriers between us and the life-altering things we are meant to experience. I wrote the following when my son Joseph was born in August, 2016. A perfectly healthy baby boy, he died suddenly (SIDS) six weeks later. 

Our culture is not unique in trying to hide or at least soften both birth and death, but we are likely an outlier in our lack of shared and accepted rituals giving them meaning. Regardless, these events are naturally sacred, evoking a powerful response within ourselves to something beyond ourselves regardless of our beliefs. 

Birth and death, alpha and omega, are overwhelming. They overwhelm us with joy or grief—they involve us in something greater than we can comprehend by giving or taking away life itself from the realm we inhabit. They reveal our deepest ignorance and fears and enkindle our highest longings and hopes. They are beyond us; we participate in them, but they remain outside our control.

Birth and death speak to our whole person. The encounter with such depths at such visceral, bodily intersections reveals something undeniable about reality as it truly is, beyond human artifice and contrivance, laying forth fundamental human questions we may rather not confront such that we can no longer ignore or twist them into something more comfortable or manageable.

Birth, like death, is a humbling, natural reminder that life is larger than you. That you have your time and place on earth as a participatory part, not a whole, of an ancient story that reaches back before you began and will continue on into the future long after you're gone. The humans who made your life possible did so before you can remember and before you existed. The humans whose lives you help make possible may outlast both you and many more who do not yet exist.

This speaks to larger purposes in life that go beyond our impoverished, compartmentalized, and neatly and abstractly packaged conception of "work," suggesting a possible framework within which we can reorient ourselves and our understanding of what fills our day. No matter how important or necessary the work you do daily in your allotted time here, it will always be there waiting for you. It is never complete. There will always be "more to do."

Think of all the work each person did en route to giving you your time here, as well as all those who overlapped with your time, all making you whoever you now are. And imagine the daily work those in the future will do. Why is it significant, and to what extent?

As important and necessary and natural as work is, it is also always a part of artifices of human making, and most of what we make will fall apart, or serve things that fall apart. In fact, the more one is certain that what you do is important and the longer you think it will last, and the more you stake your identity on these supposed facts, the more suspicious of yourself you ought be. 

Institutions and structures inevitably crumble and fall apart like cities and buildings. What will last longest is whatever part of our work actually (and not merely potentially) shapes other particular and individual human beings for and by whom these institutions and structures are built and in whom ideas live, move, and have their being. 

Thus the most important thing you do today is likely not related directly to the abstract package of "work" you do but almost inevitably involves some kind of personal interaction you have with some other person in which you either helped or hindered their fulfillment as a person: their achievement of a common good.

Our most relevant legacy, then, at the heart of whatever legacy humans are capable of—the task at hand that the cosmos most directly gives us if we are so privileged—is found in those particular and individual humans for whom we are given the most direct and participatory responsibility: for many, these are our children. 

What will you do with the time you spend with them today? It is not so much how much time you spend but what you do with the time you are given: what you do with the time you give yourself to give, and how you order their time for them when you cannot be present. This is likely the larger part of your most important work, your most lasting work, your most meaningful work, for which you are most responsible.


Matthew J. Peterson (@docmjp) is Vice President of Education at the Claremont Institute and Editor of The American Mind. He directs Claremont’s annual fellowships and heads our initiative for a new center to support graduate level scholarship.