No-one is all bad, or all good. But most of us recognise a fine human being: someone respected for who they are rather than what they have, what they do rather than just what they say, how they respond to others, and how they deal with challenging situations. What surprises me is there is so little overt aspiration in today’s world to become a fine human being. Education seems to be all about getting qualifications to secure a well-paid high-status job – although there is some recognition that social and emotional learning alongside ‘character’ education has an impact on the ability to flourish in life.
I have come across many people who fit the definition of a fine human being; some achieve notoriety, others just get on with things behind the scenes.
The picture above is of Scott Neeson who gave up a successful career in the film industry to ensure that as many Cambodian children as possible had a roof over their head, health care and education. No-one in LA could understand this decision – he had all the trappings of wealth and fame but in a documentary Scott said that before this life change he had never known what is was to be truly happy (Photo courtesy of Cambodian Children’s Fund).
David Nott is a vascular surgeon who spends three months a year in the most dangerous places in the world trying to put shattered people together regardless of their race or religion. He does this for no reward or status but because people need it. He and his wife have also set up a foundation to provide training to continue this work.
Daniel Barenboim established the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra where Israelis and Palestinians create music together. He does not expect this will bring peace to the Middle East but hopes it will enhance mutual understanding.
Beyond his family, friends and colleagues no-one will have heard of Chris Lee – but following retirement Chris did some training with RedR (people and skills for disaster relief) and offered his services in some of the most challenging of places in the world to either establish or mend broken infrastructure that facilitates everyday existence.
Dr Catherine Hamlin has spent much of her life in Ethiopia helping to fix fistulas – a childbirth injury leading to incontinence and associated stigma. She is now 92 but the hospital she established in Addis Ababa is still going strong.
Malala Yousafzai nearly died for her determination to raise the importance of female education in Pakistan – and now around the world. She stands up for those unable to speak for themselves.
I could go on – there are millions of fine human beings. You can probably name those you know personally – people going out of their way to make the lives of others better – sometimes just by checking in on an elderly neighbour, establishing a community garden or collecting unsold food to give to homeless shelters. I regularly meet teachers who do everything they can to make a positive difference for students, especially those who are vulnerable.
These people are living their lives meaningfully, not seeking their own personal happiness or glory but finding great purpose in what they are doing. Not just talking, but taking action based on values of kindness, compassion and altruism. Positive psychology research tells us that this is the way to authentic wellbeing.
But every day the media gives coverage to those at the opposite end of the spectrum. This week the papers are full of the abuse on Nauru and Manus Island – individuals taking their lead from policies that dehumanise the desperate. In the UK the news is about individuals extracting massive profits out of businesses that then go belly up, leaving employees with no work and reduced pensions. Their greed is compounded by choosing to live as tax exiles. How many yachts does it take to be happy with yourself?
And this week I heard someone on a radio program talking about ‘post-truth’ politics – meaning that lying and cheating to achieve power is becoming the way of the world. What is done often enough becomes the norm – and therefore a model for others to follow. If ‘they’ can behave like this – why can’t I?
It would seem that our children may be learning that the only thing that matters is getting as much for yourself as possible, and that you do this by any means available. You can lie if you can get away with it, pushing others out of your path is OK (losers!) and there is no reason to have any responsibility for the wellbeing of those who have fallen on hard times. You can get all you want in life (gold taps and knighthoods?) if you just focus.
Is this the world we want in the future? Is this the ‘success’ you want for your own kids. Do young people believe that this is what will really make them happy?
If these are the messages young people are receiving about how to be in the world and what will bring them happiness there needs to be a powerful alternative that debunks the myths of where wellbeing lies. Education needs to actively and routinely address values, ethics, compassion, shared humanity and emotional literacy. We owe it to young people and their future to give them opportunities to think through what it means to live a worthwhile life and how they might become a fine human being. In this way they experience the satisfaction, self-worth and joy that way of being is more likely to bring them.