A “Who”, Not Just a “What”

Sometimes we remain oblivious to things that are obvious. Why is it so difficult to do what would seem to be second nature? Last evening was a proverbial conk on the head! My response? A little squirming in my seat and an honest, “Duh?!?”

I participated in a dinner conference at the University of St. Thomas (I’m coming to really love that school!) My “awakening” was in the form of a challenge to remember what I too easily forget — the “who” I am encountering is not simply the “what” of impersonal exchange!

How simple can it get? Yet, in so many social, professional and economic exchanges I consider the other more as a role or title than a person — more as boss, client, customer, clerk than someone with a name and a life, someone who deserves from me the same human decency and treatment I expect from them.

The dinner was co-sponsored by three UST institutes in some way fostering Catholic social thought and ethical leadership. It aspired to offer an entrepreneurial vision in which business can truly flourish. It really was an abundance of insight and challenge. So the evening might have some lasting impact, I’ve decided to focus one concrete idea for application in my life.

As might be expected given the value commitment of the university, we were reminded of the “social mortgage” on personal and corporate profit. Yes, business should — indeed, must — generate earnings for reinvestment in the enterprise. Yet, profit must also serve the common good if it is to be truly sustainable over time.  In addition, the product or service must remain tethered to some human or social need.

In other words, good business practice is not simply a matter of amassing private wealth. Obvious, right? Then, why do we remain so easily oblivious? Why is it so easy to see a “what” rather than a “who” at work? Why are so many business encounters no more than brusk economic exchanges?

We can do better! We must do better! Don’t we all seek something more personal in all our public lives? Aren’t we all eager for a richer sense of community, even a more robust experience of citizenship?

My simple plan is to begin seeing the “who”, not merely a “what”, standing right in front of me!


Last evening’s dinner was part of the University of St. Thomas’s Higher Calling Series, co-sponsored by the university’s Veritas Institute in the Opus College of Business; John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought; and the Joseph & Edith Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership.  It was free!  Thank you, UST.

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