Risk and the Common Good

by | Nov 7, 2021

Pat Riviere-Seel Poet and Writer

I run alone, without a cell phone, and usually without any identification. It’s a risk I’m comfortable taking. My route through town and residential neighborhoods is well known, and in this small town, I’m also known. I’m pretty confident that if I had a fall or got into trouble on a run, someone would be there to help me. That’s a risk I’m willing to take.

About 10 years ago I stopped running alone without a cell phone on the wooded trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Frequently I was the only person on the trail and the roots and rocks were hazards that could cause a fall and possibly serious injury. I realized that my balance and reflexes were not as sharp as they were when I was in my 30s, 40s and 50s. I needed to take a realistic look at the risks of running alone. My decisions about where, when, and how to run do not affect anyone else’s health, safety, life or liberty.

According to Wikipedia (that mostly reliable online resource), “a risk assessment determines possible mishaps, their likelihood and consequences, and the tolerances for such events.” It’s not something we humans are especially good at, as the Wikipedia entry goes on to elaborate: “There is a tendency for individuals to be less rational when risks and exposures concern themselves as opposed to others. There is also a tendency to underestimate risks that are voluntary or where the individual sees themselves as being in control, such as smoking.” I would add vaccines and guns. Carrying a loaded gun into a supermarket or in any public place poses a risk to others. When the shooting starts, how will any untrained civilian know the difference between the good guys and the bad guys? I’m not a fan of “vigilante justice.” The risk is just too high.

These days there is a lot of talk about “personal freedom” and the “right” for individuals to determine what is “best for me and my family.” That talk sounds painfully familiar. It’s similar to the talk I heard 30 years ago when child abuse, domestic violence, and incest were just beginning to be acknowledged publicly and legislation was being written to protect children and spouses. When I worked as a newspaper journalist, a sheriff once told me, “We don’t get involved in family matters. We think that’s private, that the parents know what’s best.” Not always.

I think about risk and the common good, what it means to live in a civilized society. What do we owe each other? What are our responsibilities to each other? What risks do we take that could harm or kill another?

Vaccine mandates, like seat belt and motorcycle helmet mandates, are not about “personal freedom” or “the government telling me what to do.” In this country we have had vaccine mandates for years. It’s a public safety issue. Public. Safety. It’s about my freedom and rights ending where yours begin. Wearing seatbelts and motorcycle helmets protects us all, in part by saving the costs of medical care that we would all pay for. There are better uses for our tax dollars than to pay for the consequences of someone else’s risky behavior. The laws are part of the common good. In his 2018 book (a long essay), The Common Good, Robert Reich writes:

“That common good… is a set of shared commitments – to the rule of law, and to the spirit as well as the letter of the law; to our democratic institutions of government; to truth; to tolerance of our differences; to equal political rights and equal opportunity; to participating in our civic life, and making necessary sacrifices for the ideal we hold in common. We must share these commitments if we are to have a functioning society. They inform our judgments about right and wrong because they constitute our common good. Without them, there is no “we”.

Do we still have a “we” in this country where fear, cultural wars, misinformation, conspiracy theories, untruths, and rising authoritarianism have become the zeitgeist of the 21st century in America? I hope so. A big part of that hope is a younger generation of poets, like Clint Smith. The poems in his book, Counting Descent, will punch you in the gut, break your heart, and offer hope, often all at the same time.

For the Hardest Days
—by Clint Smith, from Counting Descent (Write Bloody Publishing, 2016)

Some evenings, after days when the world feels
like it has poured all of its despair onto me,
when I am awash with burdens that rest atop
my body like a burlap of jostling shadows,

I find a place to watch the sun set, I dig
my feet into a soil that has rebirthed itself
a million times over. I listen to the sound
of leaves as they decide whether or not

it is time to descend from their branches.
It is hard to describe the comfort one feels
in sitting with something you trust will always be
there, something you can count on to remain

familiar when all else seems awry. How remarkable
it is to know that so many have watched the same
sun set before you. How the wind can carry
pollen and drop it somewhere it has never been.
How the leaves have always become the soil

that then become the leaves again. How maybe
we are not so different from the leaves.
How maybe we are also always being reborn
to something more than we once were.

How maybe that’s what waking up each morning is.
A reminder that we are born
of the same atoms as every plant and bird
and mountain and ocean around us.

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6 Comments

  1. Catherine Carter

    That’s a beautiful Smith poem, Pat, even in an era of ecological decline. The atoms are the atoms, and we are the atoms too.

    Reply
  2. Pat Riviere-Seel

    Smith’s entire book is exquisite. The poems blow me away on so many levels. As long as there are young poets writing like this, I remain optimistic for the future. Thanks for reading.

    Reply
  3. Mary Sorrells

    I feel the care you have for all people and the sadness at choices that seem short-sighted and not for the common good. I agree with most of your examples and carry kindred questions. These are deeply concerning days. I feel the love and width and depth of your ponderings. I think if we keep returning to love and give room for not understanding the entire picture, that we will pull through. Many people say that changes are coming for the good. I pray they are right. Thank you for introducing me to a poet I had not met before now. I am utterly taken with Clint Smith’s grasp and expression of the big picture!

    Reply
    • Pat Riviere-Seel

      Dear Mary, thank you for your generous comments, and for living the way of love. There is so little I understand, and I am grateful to you for reminding me to leave room for not understanding. I struggle to understand and return to love. You remain dear to me.

      Reply
  4. Bill Griffin

    Beautiful photo of sunset and beautiful reflection in the poem. Thanks, Pat, for opening a door to hope. It takes intentional practice to avoid thinking as “other” and evil those who seem to me to be distorting and derogating this concept of common good. I try. Perhaps that’s the first step to holding onto the “we.”

    Reply
    • Pat Riviere-Seel

      Thank you, Bill, for reminding me of how important it is to be intentional, in both thoughts and actions.

      Reply

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