Wellbeing & Civil Society 

Civil Society Is The Ground That Is Necessary for Wellbeing to Flourish

Civil society is much more than social and economic justice or a label for voluntary or not for profit organizations.Civil society is an abundant, generative culture based upon deep values of respect, reciprocity, responsibility, collaboration and the protection of the shared value found in the human and natural commons. It is an evolved cultural lens that allows new capability, relatedness and creativity ( including enterprise) to generate and emerge. It allows difference to be valued and be framed within values that allow individuality to become sociable and serve and celebrate the whole as well as itself.

It also represents a systemic, self-limiting ‘ecological’ approach to social and economic systems that focuses on stability and distribution as well as production and expansion.

In this sense, civil society is the societal equivalent to the love found in a functional family

Consequently civil society is an essential part of ‘the new story’ because it is the soil in which collective human wellbeing can flourish.

The evolution of complex networks of civil, enterprise and agricultural ecologies to develop an enhanced context for enlightened business, enlightened agriculture and enlightened governance to flourish are perhaps the next stage in developing the new story of wellbeing. (1)

In the old story – which unfortunately is still very with us – wellbeing is constrained and is perhaps even non-existent in independent, separatist, adversarial cultures, organizations or nations, where civil society is immature or has broken down, or where extremes of exploitation and extraction are the norm. Wellbeing is stifled where economic or political corruption and competition allow only in-groups, or the most powerful, the opportunity to accrue resources, education and services through undue influence, leaving the least powerful to sink or swim. Wellbeing and its foundational ground of civil society stand in direct opposition to maximizing profit and self-interested power.

In our globalized culture civil society is perhaps only in its infancy. The task, if we want wellbeing to flourish, is to prepare the soil in which that may be possible.

This is not going to happen without conscious personal and collective effort. It requires a level of awareness and congruence from each of us that can contain within ourselves the immature, narcissistic, extractive impulse of entitlement, conquest and domination

These unconscious psychological shadows of the masculine and feminine in western individualist cultures have been given licence, not only within our mainstream institutions and organizations, but also within the political movements that oppose them.  For in a truly civil society there is no ‘them’ – we are all part of the same ‘tribe’ –  but we are not all the same  and diversity of ‘otherness’ must be understood and honoured too. Unfortunately many who embrace a liberal environmental perspective demand equality without fully accepting difference and capability, thereby conflating sameness with equality  and presuming a righteousness that they project on conservative and  traditional faith perspectives. This is a fundamental trap that represents a block to our collective evolution  and maturity.

I argue that :

To nourish civil society we need to develop new kinds of leadership that rebalance the feminine and the masculine. This requires a cultural maturity in which the mature feminine is honoured and the mature masculine is re-defined distinct from the immature warrior so that wellbeing can be nurtured, protected and become rooted

This re-balancing gesture is something that parents of functional families encourage in their children much of the time, namely the idea that the rights and benefits of being part of a family can only come if we develop the gift of self restraint (the societal equivalent of the steam engine governor (2) which maintains the equilibrium of all our freedoms) – that is to say our human responsibilities to each other, to the family and to the world.

This is not a righteous or moralistic position. It is merely a practical one. Unilateral gift giving is a foundation of civil society. That is to say that civil society involves a commitment from each of us to making some contribution that involves an element that requires no recompense. Crucially it incorporates an element of letting go of entitlement that is experienced neither as martyrdom nor sacrifice but rather as an act of being-ness.

It is no accident that the icon of the mother and child has been synonymous with the gesture of Love throughout the Christian world – nurturing is a unilateral act of gift giving. However as Genevieve Vaughn points out(3):

Unfortunately “in a culture where commodity exchange for money is the order of the day, we are practicing exchange all the time and we have become blind to the continued existence and importance of unilateral gift giving”. Effectively she is saying our culture is blind to mature Love

The ability to let go of some degree of entitlement – ‘the gift of self restraint’ – is the ground in which civil society can flourish and upon which wellbeing depends. Bert Hellinger has observed that, “when we let go of claiming the fullest extent of our rights, we move closer to each other”. (4) Civil Society is a mature expression of social relations that cannot be built upon a fundamentalist interpretation of human rights in the sense of a self-referring culture of personal entitlement – a culture that writers such as Bill Plotkin and Thomas Berry and others have labeled egocentric, and could be described as being shaped by the shadow of liberalism. Neither though can civil society be built upon dogma or domination as an authoritarian reaction to liberalism – that is to say the shadow of conservatism.

If however we are able to stop short of exercising our freedoms to the very fullest extent of our entitlement – but instead exercise what I call “the gift of self restraint”, by taking just a little less than we feel entitled to and giving a little more than we might get away with, then we fulfil our human responsibilities and move towards each other rather than away

This is the essence of civil society. It is a “goldilocks zone” in which relational behaviour is neither totally self-interested nor self martyring  because the mothering and fathering principles apply to ourselves as well as the other and consequently provide a compass for generative wellbeing

When we act thus we protect our shared heritage and investment in the Commons – both human and natural. Such a perspective allows for respect of diversity and difference whilst at the same time encouraging individual initiative and mutually supportive behaviours that are congruent with interdependence and the values at the heart of all the major faiths.


(1) For example see www.elysiacommons.org

(2)  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Governor_%28device%29

(3)  Genevieve Vaughn: “On Mothering”

(4)  Bert Hellinger: “Orders of Love”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


You may use these tags : <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>