Common Fire: Lives of Commitment in a Complex World

Parks Daloz, Laurent A., Cheryl H. Keen, James P. Keen, and Sharon Parks. Common Fire: Lives of Commitment in a Complex World. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996.

Across a broad variety of disciplines -- ethics, education, management, economics, religious education, theology -- the emerging consensus is that we need to move away from a radical commitment to individualism, and instead focus our energy and attention on recognition of and commitment to the "common good." Much has been written detailing the many dilemmas modern culture (or postmodern culture, in some analyses) poses to such commitment. Thus far that conversation has lacked solid research into the dynamics of environments that initiate and foster such commitments, without at the same time enervating those who hold them. <p>Parks Daloz, Keen, and Keen, have spent several years in a multi-phase, collaborative, qualitative inquiry into just these questions. Using the analytical tools of constructive developmental psychology the researchers identified and interviewed more than one hundred adults who fit their criteria: commitment to the common good (defined as people who "while working on behalf of particular constituencies, understood themselves to be working on behalf of the whole of life"), perseverance and resilience (which included sustaining work for at least seven years, but in many cases more than twenty years), ethical congruence between life and work ("people who, while inevitably imperfect, could be recognized as reasonably decent human beings"), and engagement with diversity and complexity ("an ability not only to care for a particular individual, community, or cause, but also to be able to see the larger implications of one's actions, and to recognize how one's work affects and is affected by the interdependent realities of the new commons"). <p>Analysis of the interviews revealed a series of elements that Parks Daloz, et. al. believe are crucial to the development of sustainable social commitment in this "age of complexity": "a constructive encounter with otherness in the early years"; "the ability to take the perspective of other cultures, to think systematically, and to hold paradox" in mind; "early engagement with public life in the home," "engagement with other committed youth," "opportunities for service," "mentors," and "networks of like-minded people." The research team also studied the "shadow side" of commitments to the common good, exploring the role of anger, ambition, guilt, perfectionism, and a desire to control, in their study participants' lives. <p>Their research analysis is suffused with the insights of constructive development psychology, but presented in an accessible and compelling fashion. Narrative interview excerpts provide rich detail in illustration of their conclusions, and the authors include an epilogue detailing constructive steps that can be taken in a variety of sectors (households, schools, higher education, the professions and professional education, religion, arts and media, public policy, business, nonprofit organizations, the health and therapeutic community, foundations and philanthropy) to nurture renewed recognition of our interrelatedness and connection to the global commons. (MH)

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