Viewpoint

Advance the common good

January 8, 2014 

As we head into 2014 and more rounds of congressional debt ceiling battles, many of us are becoming more uncomfortable with our ongoing struggles to find common ground and build consensus.

There are most certainly bright spots in all of our lives, yet when it comes to the big picture, I find myself concerned that we may be heading down an unsustainable path. We seem doomed to be wearing ourselves, each other and even our planet (as we know it) out of resiliency.

In my mind, it more or less boils down to direction. I’ve come to believe that how we get there is more important than getting there. In other words, “the means justify the ends.”

I regret that this is becoming cliché, but I am convinced that we need to “be the change we wish to see in the world.”

While there are only dozens of universal life-serving needs that we human beings require to make life more wonderful, there are billions of strategies, known and yet to be discovered, to meet those needs.

I believe in three key ingredients, no matter the strategy we choose, to get to wherever we need to go. They are character, focus and willpower.

The foundational values that resonate with me have become known as the “Six Pillars of Character.” No matter the relationship, be it parent and child, friends or business associates, trustworthiness, responsibility, respect, fairness, caring and citizenship need to be the driving force behind everything we think, say and do. This may sound naive, idealistic or perhaps even corny to some, yet without these six pillars being the underlying principles in all of our lives, the societal behaviors driving the mountain of debt our country now faces are the same forces that will always bear reckoning.

At United Way we are advocating for a focus on education, income and health — the building blocks to a good quality of life. We believe that everyone wins when our youth are empowered to achieve their potential, when families are financially stable and when all of us are healthy.

By various studies, here in the United States, we know that 25 percent of our students do not graduate from high school on time; 43 percent of us spend more than we make; 49 percent of us are saving nothing towards retirement; and some 70 percent of our health issues are the result of our own lifestyle choices. How can anyone be surprised by the numbers of incarcerations, personal bankruptcies and hospitalizations our system must contend with each year?

Just to underscore my point, research tells us that third-graders who are not reading at grade-level proficiency are four times more likely to drop out of high school. And high school dropouts are eight times more likely to be incarcerated.

Once we’re adults, no matter how literate we may be, we tend to gravitate toward fixing others, rather than aspiring to fix ourselves. Sure, we can help each other, but in the end, each of us needs the willpower to stay focused and to be trustworthy, responsible, respectful, fair, caring and civically engaged. This is especially necessary if we would like future generations to do the same.

It’s only natural that our heartstrings are pulled when it comes to helping those in need. But if we are ever to put this debt ceiling behind us, we need to become more mindful of investing in prevention and evolving our own personal behaviors of responsibility.

Improving lives by mobilizing the caring power of our communities is important. But without the strength of character, the focus on “education, income and health” and the willpower to endeavor to keep our character and focus connected we are less likely to put our debt ceiling challenges behind us.

At United Way of San Luis Obispo County we are putting our focus into action by offering programs that nurture early learning tools for parents and their children, from birth to kindergarten, like Imagination Library and Born Learning. In order to avoid individual debt ceiling issues, we focus on programs that support financial literacy, such as Money Talks and MyFreeTaxes.org. We collaborate with schools, public safety and local employers to support programs that inspire good mental health like Nonviolent Communications. And we seek to strengthen our communities with programs like the United Way Youth Board, 2-1-1 SLO County and our Community Impact Fund.

Having a head-of-household job is a blessing past telling. Living gratefully within our means is “the rest of the story.” How we navigate away from our ever-looming debt ceiling is up to all of us, no matter our station in life.

As long as we keep trying, we will continue to advance the common good. Here’s to enhancing our abilities to “Live United” in 2014.

Rick London is chief executive officer of United Way of San Luis Obispo County.

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