October 1st, 2002

The Recognition of Human Goodness:
An Approach to a Sorely-Needed Paradigm Shift

Reposted from The University of Human Goodness

There is a societal problem today that underlies and holds in place many other of the more “obvious” problems. This problem can be described as “cynicism.” The dictionary defines cynicism as a disbelief in the goodness of humanity. This cynicism is so pervasive that it both fosters and worsens virtually every problem in society. An effective counter to this cynicism is the “inspirational” function of service organizations based on all-volunteer models. Thus the far-reaching contribution of such organizations is not primarily in the obvious services they provide, but rather in their potential for countering today’s cynical attitude. As such a public attitude, or paradigm, shifts to the positive, it produces wide-ranging benefits in virtually every area and problem of our society.

Such new, all-volunteer organizations have been forming in the past two decades. One of the most experienced and visible of these is the University for the Study of Human Goodness and Creative Group Work.  It is commonly called the University for the Study of Human Goodness and is the sister organization to Human Service Alliance. Both are located on the same campus in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The problem is an unconscious or conscious paradigm prevalent in society that says, in effect, “People are no darn good.” The paradigm is seen in our cynical attitudes such as:

1. “Nothing is really working,”

2. “No one is really to be trusted.”

This is manifested in frequently-voiced statements such as, “The schools are not working. The courts are not working, nor the justice system, health care system, political system, economic system,” etc.

Underlying these views is a fundamental assumption to the effect that all of these problems are due to the flawed, inherent character of people: The separation and mutual distrust of ethnic groups, management and labor, rich and poor, old and young. And the distrust between individuals, resulting in divorce and family disharmony (distrust being rooted in the inability to see the goodness in the other person or group). This paradigm—this belief that, “Basically, humankind is not okay”—has subtle and overt consequences of enormous proportions.

First, it creates a lack of trust which hinders every kind of relationship and separates individuals from one another (spouses, families, work groups, etc.).  And it separates groups from one another (ethnic groups, socioeconomic, political, religious, geographic, and gender groups.) The paradigm frays and even unravels the very fabric of society. Yet, like any paradigm, it goes unnoticed. We think, “That is the way things are; people really are not very good at their core,” and we do not notice the problems which come in its wake, the effects it produces. We do not take the time to examine our assumption; and if we do, we choose the negative interpretation of human nature.

Second, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. When people think of others, and themselves, in this cynical way, people begin to act in these ways. The list of “problems” above is both a consequence and a cause of society’s cynicism. Conversely, the paradigm is both a cause and a consequence of the listed problems. The paradigm forms a vicious circle. Since people (both “problem solvers” and “problem makers”) are viewed as not very good, then little can be done to solve societal problems.

While this paradigm is in place, it greatly impedes the success of all social service initiatives and programs. Because—viewed through the eyes of this paradigm—people are not very good, or very competent. These “people” also include the ones engaged in “solving” the problems: teachers, politicians, judges, doctors, police officers, as well as those who are “creating” problems.

While this paradigm is in place, even successful intervention programs or initiatives are seen as insignificant exceptions in the vast sea of the prevailing paradigm. That is to say, the underlying cynicism of someone who learns about the program is not changed. He or she would still think that—while some people/clients had been helped or positively changed—they, and people in general, are still “not okay,” still inherently flawed .

And under the existing paradigm, if “exceptions” do occur—if some people are seen to be good—they are simply seen as “exceptions to the rule (paradigm).” They are, for example, seen as an isolated or rare “saint,” and not representative of what is possible for the rest of humanity. This may be the most harmful part of the existing paradigm. It prevents any new interpretation of what is being seen. It prevents change, optimism, or success. The existing paradigm therefore must be cracked or dispelled in order for things to be seen in a new light.

The good news is that there is a potential solution or energy which, if liberated, has the power to dispel (dis-“spell”) the existing paradigm, and to substitute one that is more real, more useful, true, and workable; one which can take us from under the “spell” of the existing paradigm.

It is the future proliferation and popularization of service organizations that may help to change this paradigm.  Examples are the University for the Study of Human Goodness (UfHG) and other groups that function with no paid staff of any sort, and whose services are given at no charge—and whose services are impeccably good—”Better than money can buy,” i.e., organizations in which people (volunteers) are clearly and undeniably acting selflessly. These are new kinds of service organizations, whose ultimate and purposeful mission is to reach far beyond the hundreds, or thousands, of people that they serve directly. Their ultimate mission is nothing less than to inspire millions of people—humankind—to have a higher, truer picture of itself. Their function is, thus, inspiration. Inspiration occurs when people see goodness manifested in the world, which therefore is the opposite of cynicism. The volunteers in these organizations typically do their work simply because it is the right thing to do, rather than for some larger purpose, but the work does have the larger effect of inspiration and thus contributes to dispelling the paradigm.

This is not to say such an organization is better than a traditional social service organization. Indeed, one shudders to think what American society would be like without the work that the traditional organizations are doing, i.e., with paid staffs coordinating volunteer helpers. The two kinds of organizations simply have different purposes or missions.

A premise of this document thus holds that organizations with some paid staff have less potential to dispel the existing paradigm, while organizations based on an all-volunteer and no-fee-for-service model have more potential to do that.

The current paradigm of cynicism is easier to see in retrospect (as are all paradigms) once we have begun to move beyond it and look backward to where we were. This clearer vision occurs whenever something “restores our faith in humanity.” Then we can see, in retrospect, that in order for our faith in humanity to have been “restored,” it must have been somewhat “diminished” in the first place.

Service organizations operating in the all-volunteer and better-than-money-can-buy mode have a unique ability to dispel the existing paradigm. For example, such changes are routinely observed among patrons of the University’s service laboratory, California Fresh Buffet. They frequently have the thought—and voice the words—”This place restores my faith in humanity.”

For example, only a month after the restaurant was opened, Steve Lawson, a columnist from a local newspaper, ate there and devoted a column to the fact that this experience changed his cynical views about human nature.

“I keep asking myself, ‘When did I become so cynical?’ ÖI found myself skeptical about a place where the staff treats everyone with respect and acts friendly.  Could it be simple human goodness? Oh, come now! Be serious!

“See what I mean about my becoming cynical?  Why did I find myself distrusting all those smiles? Maybe I just wasn’t ready to believe that many people could have ‘sincere’ smiles while bussing tables or filling racks of glasses and plates.

“Or maybe I forgot that there is more to life than working for monetary gain. These people were volunteering for their own charitable cause. They were receiving something other than money for their labor. They were getting the satisfaction of sharing a simple act of human kindness, and I was getting a free lesson in ‘How to Stop Being a Cynic.'”

This renewed optimism is even stronger among patrons who visit the restaurant regularly, and even more so among those who start volunteering–and more yet among those who are University students and who volunteer frequently.

Continuing with the discussion of the type of organizations that help to dispel the paradigm of cynicism: All-volunteer organizations—those with no paid staffs and who do impeccable work—leave the least possible doubt to observers as to their purity of purpose. That purity is evident in every aspect of such an organization. The tasks normally assumed by a paid executive director or a janitor are all assumed by volunteers—and indeed, it may be the same person(s) doing both those tasks!

What happens when volunteers work long and hard and joyfully; when the restaurant food is lovingly prepared to come out as savory and attractive; when the walls, tables, and floors shine; and when all the restaurant staff smiles a genuine welcoming smile? What is the effect on a patron who comes into this environment?

The question is not hard to answer. The goodness of people becomes evident; there is no way to escape the realization. The facts are too evident. No cynical rationalizations are possible about volunteers’ motives or purpose. There is no way to be cynical about what is being seen, felt, and tasted, no matter how much one tries to apply the old paradigm. The doubtful mind has been almost shocked by seeing large amounts of purity, hard work, selflessness, and joy. The patrons rightly feel that they are being well cared for and respected, simply for their own sake, simply because they are a fellow human being.

Another restaurant reviewer wrote, “There was an elusive ‘something’ in the way we were treated that made us feel as if we were regarded as human beings who mattered rather than as customers to be satisfied.”

The patron, and virtually anyone hearing about the restaurant (or this kind of service, when offered anywhere), therefore has to consider that there may be a new way of seeing humanity!

There is another aspect to this work. The new volunteer organizations which are offering such services are not the product of one or two planners or “saints,” but rather of dozens of people. And these are very ordinary people: housewives, salespeople, carpenters, lawyers, chemists, trades people, doctors, secretaries. People with mortgages, jobs, and kids. Observers can therefore see that these people are representative of humanity.

At some point it becomes clear to the observer, or reader, that ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things. That “goodness” resides in everyone; that people do have the willingness and capacity to help one another. For many people, this is enough to begin the creation of a new, more optimistic paradigm about the nature of humanity. When that happens, people start to see goodness in places and situations where they had not seen it before. They see good in people who previously looked all bad. They see solutions to situations which earlier seemed impossible. They find new ways to approach people who previously seemed hopeless or rigid. As a consequence, relations between individuals and between groups improve, with all the benefits which accrue from this.

It is precisely this view which is needed for our institutions to work. It is thus necessary that the paradigm of cynicism be shifted. An analogy to the destructive power of this cynical paradigm is the keynote statement by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” i.e., the paradigm of fear. Nowadays the prevailing paradigm is cynicism.

A central purpose of these new kinds of volunteer organizations is to act as “models” or demonstrations to show others (such as observers or readers of this document) that such things can be done, and to promote their replication in other places–and to foster optimism and inspiration. The optimism is not a Pollyannaish or rose-colored optimism. Nor is it simply based on an inspired “vision.” It is optimism based on having worked hard for the result, and having seen concrete evidence that such things are possible

With the existing paradigm, good programs and initiatives are often blocked from being truly successful. Those that are successful are (unconsciously) seen by observers as merely an exception, an unexplained blip in the field of the existing paradigm of “things don’t work/people aren’t okay.”

But with the new societal paradigm, relationships improve and various kinds of social and development programs tend to work, and moreover, their working is now seen–not as a lucky or unusual aberration—but rather as proof of the new paradigm, i.e., that “there is goodness out there”—goodness in the people who deliver the programs and in the recipients. There is renewed optimism that our relationships and institutions can work, including such institutions as marriage and family.

And furthermore, people’s optimism and inspiration are converted into action. For example, we all know that kindness begets kindness. And since approximately 3,000 people dine at the restaurant each week, there is a “ripple effect” of the patrons taking kindness into the community where they spread it via their daily contacts—who, in turn, spread it further.

QUESTION: Why is it important that a service organization be all-volunteer in order to help shift the paradigm? What about a model, for example, in which there is simply one paid person—an executive director—and then lots of hard working, dedicated, committed volunteers who work, give money, and create successful programs?

ANSWER: Because under the present paradigm, the human mind will unconsciously overlook, reject, forget, rationalize, or deny any fact that contradicts the cynicism. Virtually everything is seen through the lens of the cynicism. So when most people see that exemplary organization, their cynicism about humanity as a whole remains untouched. They will unconsciously use one of the psychological mechanisms listed above to keep the cynicism in place. They will rationalize, for example, that:

“The (paid) director does a great job of recruiting and motivating the volunteers. She knows how to rope them in and fire them up,” i.e., the inherent goodness of the volunteers tends to be overlooked or denied. Furthermore, what is seen is the apparent technical competence of the director—and not much of her inherent goodness since, after all, “She is getting paid for the good work she does.” Additionally, the volunteers will not be seen as fully competent, in comparison to the paid director, since in our society competency is equated with payment. Whoever is paid is seen as the one who is most competent–and most motivated!  Nor will the volunteers themselves act as competent or as responsible as when there is no paid “leader.” Payment denotes leadership. If someone is paid they are seen as the leader. So the observer (and the volunteers themselves) cannot perceive the volunteers as taking full leadership or fully responsible roles.

When an organization is all-volunteer, its dynamics are totally changed. Everything is affected.

QUESTION: Why is it important for an organization (that wishes to help shift the paradigm of cynicism) to offer services without charge? Why not have some fees, or at least some token fees?

ANSWER: Because, here again, the minds of observers are strongly colored by the prevailing paradigm. Human minds have dozens of ways of imagining that any collected money will find its way into someone’s pocket. Thus, we must leave no room for doubting the potential—and actual—inner goodness of humankind. This is one answer among several to the question.

QUESTION: What is the significance of the fact that volunteer work is done by “ordinary people”?

ANSWER: Because if it is done by people who seem “different,” those differences will be rationalized by the cynical mind as the “reason” for the good actions. Such actions are thus discounted or trivialized. For example, if some good work is done by volunteers in a religious setting, the observer’s rationalization may be that they are doing it in order to secure a place in heaven. If done by wealthy or retired people, it may be said that, “They have nothing else to do.” If done by someone who has encountered difficulties in their lives, the rationalization may be that he or she is simply trying to forget their problems. If done by an organization with a strong leader, the comment may be that the good works are due to the leader—his or her vision, charisma, persuasion, or manipulation, and not the inherent goodness of the workers. Any rationalization may be used to avoid seeing goodness in others. Thus, the only acts which might penetrate the unconscious, yet thick wall, of cynicism are those of very obvious selflessness, and those done by “ordinary people. This is one answer, among several, to the above question.

In summary, the typical “paid staff” model of human service organization can be quite effective in serving a specific target population of clients, numbering in the hundreds or even tens of thousands. Indeed, for this purpose, this model serves very well. But such an organization probably has little effect on mankind’s paradigm view of itself. Nor had such an organization ever considered the role of paradigm shifting as part of their mission. However, such a role is central to the new volunteer organizations which are described in this document. And as the paradigm of cynicism shifts, this will vastly help the work of every kind of service organization, every assistance program, and every progressive initiative, segment, and institution in our society.

QUESTION Why is it useful to have “groups” of people—instead of individuals—serve together, as is done at the University?

ANSWER: There are several reasons. Some people think that they, themselves, could not make significant contributions to help others. They believe that they could not really “make a difference” in the lives of others. But University programs have shown that ordinary people can produce extraordinary results. The magic comes when people work as a group. In this way the talents, or “small” actions, of one person are combined with those of many others. And the successful results become apparent to everyone. This helps each student acknowledge his or her capacity for service.

Group work is also important because we have been conditioned to think of altruism in terms of individuals. On those occasions when the media do a story on human goodness, it is typically about an individual person. The person may be portrayed as rare or unusual, suggesting that that his or her qualities are special and could not be “cultivated” by others; that such a person or these qualities can only be found randomly, as though society must wait around for such individuals to “crop up.”

At the University however, such qualities are joyfully, methodically, and successfully “cultivated.” Students of the University’s service-learning programs become ever more selfless, motivated to serve others, open-hearted, and efficient at serving others. The fact that such qualities can be successfully and predictably cultivated supports the concept that the qualities are inherent in our human species and need only to be further developed. This concept is further strengthened by the fact that this development occurs with entire groups of students, and not just a few exemplary individuals.

The Other Side of the Coin

Just as many people have a cynical side, they also have an opposite, strong yearning to know that there is goodness in the world. This is clearly seen, for example, when they visit or hear about California Fresh Buffet and say, “My faith in humanity is restored!” They say this with relief! They are glad that such is the case. They are glad—though sometimes confused and slightly shocked—to see things that they have been hoping and yearning to see. This dualism—these two types of yearning—may be thought to represent, the petty personality, in contrast to the higher self, or inner being or soul. The personality is attached to, or seeks to justify, its cynicism. The soul is seeking the truth, seeking the reality of the goodness in humanity. The human goodness within each of us is looking to see the inner goodness of others, and it is joyful when this happens.

Is All This Worthwhile?

Is it useful for people to know that humankind is good at its core? The answer is a definite yes, and seems to have two parts. First, the consequences of the present paradigm of cynicism are damaging to individuals and society as a whole. Second, the benefits of a more positive view of our species are great. The existence of the paradigm of cynicism is a problem, yet we can begin to see the situation in a different way. A motto of the University is, “There is no human problem that cannot be solved by intelligence and love.”

A Public Dialogue?

Indeed, it may be time for a public dialogue on the question of human goodness. This would bring the existing paradigm into awareness. That would be useful because, by definition, we are virtually unaware of our paradigms. They are like the water is to the fish. By openly discussing the issue, numbers of people may discover that the paradigm of cynicism about the nature of humans is neither true nor useful.

© Copyright University for Human Goodness 2001

Reposted from The University of Human Goodness

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