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Carl Wernicke: Be An Artisan Of The Common Good


One of the mixed blessings of growing old is that you have seen a lot. And while it is almost always an exaggeration to say you have seen it all, well, I think I have now seen it all.

In his New Year’s Eve homily, Pope Francis, never one to shy away from taking on our most egregious sins, addressed one of the most prevalent: bad drivers.

I’m with him.

It seems to be a source of local pride wherever we live to claim our hometown drivers as the worst. People can go on for hours with horrific tales of terror on the roadways. Interestingly enough, these tales always involve bad behavior by the other guy, as of course we ourselves are exemplary drivers. I certainly have found this to be true in my case.

Anyway, the drivers in Rome must be really bad. So bad that, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, the Pontiff was driven to praise people “who move in traffic with good sense and prudence.” Being the Pope, he crafted the message in a constructive way, but we all know who he was talking about, and we appreciate him taking our side.

More seriously, Brooks noted that “As Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution points out, driving is precisely the sort of everyday activity through which people mold the culture of their community.”

Making the larger point, Brooks says the Pope gets that “the people who have the most influence on society are actually the normal folks, through their normal, everyday gestures being kind in public places, attentive to the elderly. The pope called such people, in a beautiful phrase, ‘the artisans of the common good’.”

I like that. It underscores efforts by people both here and across the world to create communities that encourage people to get out of their cars and engage with each other and with the built environment by walking, biking, etc. It didn’t get a lot of coverage, but a lot of local people spent a lot of time to ensure that the new Pensacola Bay Bridge includes safe lanes for pedestrians and bicyclists. Just as years of efforts have made downtown Pensacola increasingly people centered.

But people are the key to making anything work.

I talked last year about my trip to Vietnam. One of my most striking memories is how what at first blush appears to be a traffic system gridlocked by chaos actually functions amazingly well. If you watch it long enough you see how everyone seems to understand their place in the matrix, and by adhering to their role, they help make traffic flow quite smoothly.

In some places in the world they are experimenting with doing away with traffic rules at all, and using community design to guide people into intelligent transportation patterns.

And, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Brooks wrote that half the world’s traffic circles are in France, where they work amazingly well. In Kenya they are a disaster. Suggest building traffic circles in Pensacola, and you risk riots.

But back to the Pope and his message. I’m struck by the subtlety of his thinking; it takes real insight to penetrate the fog of everyday life to find the core of humanity in our most ordinary endeavors. It seems obvious in retrospect, but most of us miss it. Maybe because we’re too busy, oh, driving to work.