The club I joined during orientation week at uni had use of a nearby house. During one of the first gatherings of the year, one of the leaders stood up and welcomed all us newbies and gave a little talk about what kinds of behaviour characterised the club. More than 30 years on I still remember that talk.
One of the three points in the talk was ‘assume responsibility’. The illustration John gave was that if we saw that a light bulb wasn’t working, rather than thinking or commenting that ‘they should do something about it’, assuming responsibility would mean seeking out a spare bulb and changing it ourselves. Since then, I’ve never been able to see a blown light bulb, a piece of litter or full washing machine without feeling drawn to act.
We live in the kind of society where the stuff needing doing can usually be classed as someone else’s job. It seems ‘they’ have a lot of work to do. Even in our homes, the division of labour can lead to inaction on domestic work; ‘that’s mum’s job, or ‘I did it last night’.
A colleague recently commented about the discrepancy between the behaviour of people in their (PNG) villages compared with the urban areas. In the villages, people typically keep the place immaculately clean and ordered. The same people reportedly don’t think twice about throwing rubbish onto the street or leaving a mess behind themselves in urban environments. The difference is simply their ownership of the space they are occupying and the extent to which they perceive responsibility for the common good.
Living in a healthy community means assuming that responsibility. It might not be my job and may well be below my payscale, but assuming responsibility to do the little things is a trait that pays dividends in the long run. Even when no one sees, picking up that bit of rubbish, helping someone in need or tidying the communal space cultivates within us a sense of belonging and contribution to the communities in which we live.
We don’t like doing menial tasks. We shrink from being characterised as servants, we’d much rather be seen as authoritative and above crappy jobs. But one of the paradoxes of a live well lived is embracing lowliness. Doing ‘low’ stuff is not a sign of weakness but of moral strength.
The new Pope made headlines when he paid his own hotel bill. I recall an article about Roger Corbett when he was CEO of Woolworths, describing how he had pulled some weeds from the front of a store. Nothing is below us when we understand the nature of life well lived within a community. Yes, our workplaces are also communities. In the healthiest ones everyone assumes responsibility to look after the common good.
So how many employees does it take to refill the photocopy paper? One, hopefully the first one to notice it is empty.