The Challenge of Unity

Jerry Walls

In his book If Aristotle Ran General Motors, Tom Morris identifies Four Dimensions of Human Experience - the intellectual, aesthetic, moral, and spiritual dimensions of how we perceive the world. It is his claim that the targets of each of these dimentions are, respectively, Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity. These four qualities that the ancients referred to as "transcendentals," because they transcend or encompass all the contexts of life, Morris categorizes as the Four Foundations of Sustainable Excellence.

It's one of Tom Morris's distinctive claims that the spiritual dimension of human life and experience is to be most generally understood in terms of two qualities - depth and connectedness. It's important to understand that spirituality, defined in this sense, is not to be identified with either religious belief or practice, although Morris's categories can be easily translated into those terms. The point of such a definition is to make it clear that everyone, whether consciously religious or not, has a spiritual dimension to his or her experience of the world, day to day, at work as well as at home.

To further explain the spiritual dimension, Morris specifies Four spiritual needs that all human beings share:

(1) A need for a sense of Uniqueness,
(2) A need for a sense of Union,
(3) A need for a sense of Usefulness
(4) A need for a sense of Understanding.

These needs are essential for us to experience the spiritual state of human experience that Morris calls Unity. It recently occurred to me that these four needs are the key to unity in the most ordinary sense of the word in human relationships and activities. Morris isn't just characterizing something idealized or abstractly philosophical. He is describing what is necessary for one of the most desired, and often elusive, kinds of harmony that we need and often seek in vain at work, and sometimes even at home.

This insight came to me while I was leading, along with a Morris Institute colleague, a seminar on the Four Foundations for some leaders in state and local government in the southwest. As we discussed the application of the idea of Unity to their particular issues, a number of the participants raised questions about the very practical and pervasive problem of conflict and division in groups such as city councils. How does Unity in Morris's sense contribute to any sort of real unity in the rough and tumble of everyday life?

In the first place, real unity cannot be bought at the price of destroying people's individual uniqueness. True unity recognizes, respects and even relishes the distinctiveness of individuals. We all have unique qualities, experiences, and talents, and the rich diversity of our differences can enhance and strengthen any organization, whether a commercial business or a town council. Sometimes conflict is occasioned because unique differences are ignored, denied or stifled. Any sort of unity that is built in this fashion is artificial and dishonest, and will, accordingly, unravel under pressure. A durable unity must fully accommodate and appreciate uniqueness.

However, uniqueness is not the same thing as individualism or extreme self-sufficiency. This is where our need for union comes in. For our lives to be deeply satisfying, we need to experience union with something bigger than ourselves. At first glance, this may seem to be at odds with our need for uniqueness, but it is not. Out uniqueness is most meaningful when it makes a distinctive contribution to something larger than we could do, or be, on our own.

This is where we gain our sense of usefulness, when we, in union with others, put our unique stamp on something we mutually value. Division and conflict often occur because we fail to allow others to enjoy their rightful sense of usefulness. We don't thank people enough for their contributions, we don't make them appreciated for the difference that they are making. And so they feel either unrecognized or even that at some level they are useless to the enterprise in which we are involved. To feel either unappreciated or useless in this sense is demoralizing and divisive in the worst sort of way.

Finally, a sense of understanding is absolutely essential for unity at the practical level. In particular, it is crucial for everyone to understand the larger implications of what they are doing. The work of government, even when its immediate business is seemingly mundane matters of local interest, is never simply isolated to such concerns. For, ultimately, these issues matter because they pertain to the flourishing of human beings ? persons who live in community with others. This is the big goal that must always be kept in clear focus, especially when dealing with controversial issues. A deep understanding of this reality can help us see beyond our own narrow perspectives and can encourage us to work in unity with others for the mutual good.

This is not to suggest that it is simple to achieve unity in a divided city council, nor to imply that difficult issues can be resolved without serious effort, and often, compromise. But when such division exists, it is often rooted in unmet spiritual needs in the sense we have been considering. Problems are most likely to be resolved and unity achieved when we seek the deepest sort of human unity that comes from attending to the four spiritual needs we have specified. If we ignore the importance of this sort of unity, we are unlikely to enjoy any sort of harmony in our work together.

So if your first reaction to hearing the word "unity" used in connection with issues of governance is "Yeah, right! This is Pie-in-the-Sky stuff for sure! There is NO unity in our council, just egos and turf wars, incompatible agendas and unpleasantness!", DO NOT GIVE UP! Take matters into your own hands. Start getting to know your fellow decision makers one on one in new ways. Treat them in accordance with Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity. How? Get to know them as people, ask about their interests outside matters of politics and governance, take them out to lunch in a nice setting and just tell them you've been meaning to have a chance to sit down and just visit, with NO particular agenda. Begin to establish small points of connectedness, a synonym for unity, and you will be amazed what can happen. You'll start to see more common ground than you might have ever suspected, you'll be building relationships that can produce more harmony at crunch time, and you'll have an easier time working with your colleagues. It won't always be such an uphill battle as you have perhaps experienced in the past.

But are some people just determined to be jerks, regardless of what you do? Are some people just unable to respond to your new attempts to create points of connection? This is always a possibility, although at the Morris Institute, we hate to ever give up on anybody. People can change. But for some of them, it might be long after you've worked with them. But if you have tried your best to treat them in accordance with the Four Foundations, and have sought to address and meet their four spiritual needs, at least you'll be more sure about who the temporarily hopeless cases are, you may even have softened them up a little, and you'll have a stronger network of better connected other colleagues to resist their efforts at damage, and make good things happen.

Why settle for anything less?

If you have a story about unity, about any of these Four Foundations, or the four distinct spiritual needs as you've seen them at work, or if you'd have any insights about working with difficult people, that you'd like to share with me, email me now or at any time at and I'll be glad to philosophize with you! Also, if there is any particular topic you'd like to see me do a short essay on here in the Philosophers Corner, just say so!


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