My mentor is the nun who founded the homeless shelter I have worked at more than half of my life.
Sister Rose Marie recently moved to Iowa.
A few months ago, I went out there to get the next installment of her wisdom.
I felt a bit like Luke Skywalker flying to the Dagobah System to learn from Yoda… except I drove in a car… and Iowa has more corn.
There was one question that has haunted me for a while.
Years ago, late at night after everyone at the shelter had gone to bed, Sister Rose Marie told me THE secret.
And I didn’t understand.
She told me that the entire philosophy underpinning the shelter and her life’s work (and mine) was based on the idea that people are basically good.
Everything, she said, flows from this one truth.
At the time I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t understand.
With the humility that comes with being a middle-aged apprentice, though, I finally just asked her to explain.
I will do my best to pass on the wisdom that was passed to me…
People are basically good.
That doesn’t mean that people always do the right thing.
(Actually, most people do the right thing most of the time. That isn’t what this means, though.)
It means this:
Each person is of intrinsic value and worth, by virtue of nothing more than their humanity.
(Note: Some religions explain this by saying that we are all made in the image of God).
Our value is irrespective of who we are or what we do.
Do you believe that?
Do you believe that EVERY person is of incalculable value?
Do you really, I mean REALLY, believe that?
Do you believe that each homeless person, and every drug addict and all convicted criminals and Donald Trump and Joe Biden and Brad Pitt and Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Paris Hilton are all of inherent value and worth?
That is the essence of the philosophy that has guided my life.
And here is why it is the center…
If each person is of inherent value, then:
- We must care when someone has no food.
- We must act when someone has no shelter.
- We must do something when someone lacks healthcare.
It calls us to meet peoples’ basic needs because there is no dignity in deprivation.
But it also calls us to justice, because:
- Injustice strips the oppressed of their humanity.
- Injustice corrodes the humanity of the oppressor.
I think that last one is my favorite because it is so counterintuitive.
If EVERY person is of inherent value, then that includes those who oppress others.
When we stop their oppression, we increase the humanity of both oppressed AND oppressor.
So, here is my challenge to you:
For the next hour, every time you see someone think to yourself “That person is of inherent value.”
Make sure you do it when you see someone you don’t like. That is where this exercise can change your heart.
It is such a simple concept: The inherent value of humanity.
And entire social movements have been built on its truth.
Empathy is the answer,