All Aboard for Infinite Utility!

Thursday, February 18, 2016 - 19:45

Think for a minute about the implicit sacrifices that come with choosing to work in — or deciding to start! — a mission-driven community-focused charitable venture:

  • You’re putting your reputation on the line for all to judge whether you succeed or fall short.
  • You’re asking donors to entrust you with the high purposes and higher hopes that often come bound up with their contributions.
  • You’re pledging allegiance  and caring attention  to a lot of people you don’t know until some need  sometimes a desperate one  drives them to your door.
  • You’re declaring yourself for something, be it a service or a cause. In doing so, you raise expectations that you’ll be there no matter what and follow through to the letter on everything you say you’re going to do.

Add it all up and you’ve committed yourself not just to a job, but, in a full-bore, 24/7, always-on-your-mind sort of way to what old-fashioned people like me refer to as a “calling.” And there’s only one way to cope with a calling. You’ve got to plunge headlong and eyes open into an attitude of Infinite Utility.

It’s a daring proposition. You’ll need to get used to your best aspirational self constantly taunting you to do more for more people who need you to do more of what you promised.

You’ll have to come to terms with compulsively sharing what you know, offering connection to who you know, and continually extending yourself on others’ behalf, for as long as you have strength left in your bones.

Lawyers might look at the notion of Infinite Utility as a “duty of care” on steroids. Ayn-Randian pure capitalists would regard it as sheer lunacy since it affords no market advantage whatsoever and therefore makes no logical sense.

Maybe it’s best to think of Infinite Utility as a kind of reverse superpower, one that you can’t possess. The only way to have it is to continually give away what you have, never accumulating too much of anything lest it weaken you like Kryptonite could weaken Superman.

If that sounds too Boy Scout and pre-Millenial, then go ahead and name me a modern version of what I’m trying to get at here. I won’t buy it if you tell me I’ve pegged the “sharing economy” because everywhere I look there’s a whole lot of folks nowhere near to sharing in that system. “Servant leadership” was Robert K. Greenleaf’s 1970’s take and Robert Bellah made book in the 1980’s on what he called “habits of the heart.” Parker Palmer, also in the 1980’s, wrote a seminal book that spoke to our essential shared humanity and titled it The Company of Strangers.

In the last decade there’s a new concept aloft in the spheres of social thought called “degrowth”. It’s a theory of living humanely without raping the planet of resources and warring over what’s left. But even the academics and NGO leaders striving to define degrowth’s “social-ecological transformation” admit that they don’t much like that term. It sounds like the opposite of capitalism, and they insist capital’s fine so long as it’s used in pursuit of sustainable economies.

We’re ever awash, it seems, in good people wanting to name and tap into how we could all fly with the better angels if only we’d slow down and see one another as having more in common than not. To me, that’s what Infinite Utility suggests: we’re at our peak of human performance and society is at its most “sustainable” when together our pursuits place us in service to a prosperity for all defined in terms of health, well-being and livability.

Maybe that’s all we need as both a starting place and a place to go.