Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Choosing the Common Good by Milou Koenings

fork in the roadIf you keep abreast of social media, you might have seen "the tragedy of the commons" mentioned in the past week.  It came up because of a professor at the University of Maryland who added this question to his psych students' final exam:

You have the opportunity to earn some extra credit on your final paper grade. Select if you want 2 points or 6 points added to your final paper grade. But there's a small catch:  If more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points. Your responses will be anonymous to the class.
a)    2 points
b)    6 points

The question went viral. It isn't new, though; it was first written up in a journal over 25 years ago and is meant to highlight what is known as the "tragedy of the commons." What's is that?

sheep grazingA common was a shared grazing area in English villages where herders grazed their cows.  Occasionally, some of them would let their sheep graze there, too. Sheep eat more grass than cows.  So while it benefited a herder to let his sheep graze in the common, if many herders did it, the sheep would eventually overgraze and destroy it. A tragedy.

So, "tragedy of the commons" refers to a situation where individuals who act in their own best interests with respect to a shared resource act against the best interests of the group sharing that resource.  In other words, a situation in which doing what's best for you is bad for the group. Legislators, economists, lawyers spend a lot of time on "the commons." 

But don't we - and our romance heroes and heroines - face choices like these, too? 

It seems to me that relationships of any kind, and particularly intimate relationships, are rife with choices in which we have to decide whether or not to act selfishly at the expense of what is good for the relationship. True, a relationship isn't a public resource, but it is something shared by a least two people.  This forces us to face dilemmas like these:

Do I go to sleep for the night, or have a cup of coffee so I can stay awake to greet my beloved when he comes home late from work?

Do I avoid my mother-in-law's birthday bash because I'd rather go shopping with my sister, or do I bite the bullet and sacrifice what I want to do for peace and harmony at home? 

(Mind you, that is a totally hypothetical example - I happen to be blessed with the world's most amazing mother-in-law!)

These are all very individual, private decisions.  But time and again we're faced with the choice to act selfishly, or in support of our relationships.

Sometimes, they are not easy decisions, like in some romance novels where the needs or wants of our heroines clash with those of our heroes.  Which is what makes those stories so much fun to read, isn't it?

Facing those types of problem doesn't always come in the middle of a story.  In The Holiday, one of my favorite romantic movies, the film ends with all four protagonists, two couples each involved in transatlantic romances, embarking on shared lives that will require negotiating many such decisions if they are to succeed.

Resolving me-versus-us issues in ways in which both partners win gives readers hope that potential tragedy can be turned into victory.

As for that psych exam?  No one got extra points. The prof has been asking the question for eight years, and he's only ever had one class win the extra points!

What are some of your favorite novels in which hero and heroine must make some personal sacrifice and choose the common good in order for their relationship to survive?

Reclaiming Home by Milou Koenings
Milou Koenings writes romance because, like chocolate, stories with a happy ending bring more joy into the world and so make it a better place.  
Her sweet romance, Reclaiming Home, A Green Pines Romance, is available at Amazon
You can find her on her website, www.miloukoenings.com, on Facebook, or Twitter.
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  1. This is brilliant, Milou. Very thought provoking. I love the movie, 'The Holiday'.

    1. I could keep watching that movie over and over again!

  2. Milou, very interesting. Enjoyed this. It made me think.

  3. I hadn't heard of that, but I guess my students can feel lucky that I didn't try it one them!

  4. I prefer this kind of conflict in romances. It doesn't always have to end with only one getting what they initially wanted, but I like the characters deciding the relationship is the most important thing.

  5. I enjoyed your post. I liked the way you expressed the concept of the commons and common good versus the need/want of the individual. Gave me some ideas to consider.