I am concerned that our previous president’s agenda tended toward selfishness. It was reported by David Brooks of the New York Times that two of his top advisers noted that “the president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”
One might argue that this is old history and let’s move on. I would argue quite the contrary. It is too easy to forget the past and slip back into past mistakes. We should always be moving forward, resetting our moral compass at every turn. Only then can we serve our fellow citizens in a worthy manner.
I understand the need to protect our national interests, but the undertone of the above words can easily carry over to internal affairs. I agree with Brooks when he further notes “that [when] selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs, it grows out of a worldview that life is a competitive struggle for gain. It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath.”
Selfishness pits you against me, us against them. It implies that things are black or white or that I’m right and you’re wrong. Why are we so gung-ho to pit fellow citizens against each other, often belittling, demeaning or demonizing each other? Those are precisely the conditions that have led mass incarceration and a whole multitude of inhumanities in the past. It also reminds me of several things below—
- It is un-American—That is not what I have been taught my whole life. I think of my father’s service in WWII as an exercise in selflessness, not selfishness.
- It is not Christian—Selfishness is not the moral ethic that underpins Christianity or the other religions of the world. Quite the contrary, service and love are the message.
- It is “anti-poverty”—those of our fellow citizens who are living in the throes of poverty are even further victimized in a culture of selfishness. They are seen as less deserving and easily pushed aside, their needs subservient to those that are more deserving because they have the necessary resources. In the words of Bryan Stevenson, the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL, “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” Justice is not possible in a selfish society.
- It is anti-children—Perhaps most frightening to me as a pediatrician is how selfishness will lead to the lack of a concerted efforts that will be positive for our children. A selfish society tends to ignore its children, not embrace all of them. Such a society tends to reject those most vulnerable children. The American Academy of Pediatrics, a staunch advocate for children, notes that the decreasing access to health care for children and families will be detrimental to the physical, mental and financial well being of our children and families. Remember the health of the parents of children in poverty is crucial. Healthy children with healthy parents can be engaged citizens.
I am not naïve. I know that evil exists in the world and vigilance is absolutely necessary. Shouting, labeling and calling out people because of our preconceived notions in a selfish society makes us less safe, not more safe. Losing our values in the handling of our civic affairs as citizens, becoming more selfish instead of selfless, is a giant step in the wrong direction.
Selfishness is well reflected in a quote from a book that I recently read, The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler. A reflection by the main female character – – “But there seems an atmosphere everywhere these days in America, a malevolent vibration in the air, every citizen so quick to righteous rage, some tribal defensiveness, seeing the fault in each other’s arguments, rather than some larger common field of compromise, if not agreement.” This malevolent vibration has indeed increased recently and erodes our social fabric.
Selfishness does not and will not serve us well. We must recommit to the principles of the American dream and reject the notion of us vs. them. The role of a citizen is to improve their life, the lives of their fellow citizens and the life of their community. Selfishness makes that next to impossible.