An Antidote for Our Paralysis of Me-First : Community: When we each demand that our interests be served, as in the health-care debate, none of us will profit.
When the American Assn. of Retired Persons recently endorsed health-care reform plans that could lead to more universal coverage, it was reported that the organization’s switchboard lit up with angry phone calls from members. “I don’t want my insurance to change,” said one 69-year-old woman. “Maybe that’s selfish but, damn it, I feel I have earned the right to be selfish.”
Were we able to hear more of what this woman wanted to say, she might tell us how she had worked hard much of her life to earn her government benefits. Maybe she had lost her spouse or had experienced a recent illness. She could be feeling vulnerable and frightened, perhaps particularly by advertising she had seen directed against health-care changes.
One can hear in her words at least a whisper of an awareness that she had once been taught a larger understanding of the responsibilities we can have for one another. Whatever her upbringing, in every major religion, and in forms of humanism, as well, one finds a version of the golden rule: Seek to do for others what you would want for yourself. There is also its corollary: Do not do to others and, when possible, do not let happen to others what you wouldn’t want to happen to you.
There is renewed talk about the teaching of virtues these days. Traditionally, much of what has been understood as central to the virtuous life is a readiness to stand in another’s shoes, to feel something of their pain and vulnerability, and to do something about it.
Such virtue does not come naturally. Cute as little children may be, they are quite self-centered. True maturity is almost universally understood to include a capacity to keep one’s own needs and wants from being the center of the universe.
Freedom, then, is not understood as being able to do whatever one pleases. That, in fact, is bondage to a self-centeredness from which one seeks some measure of freedom in order to be free to be of service to others and to the community.
Such an understanding of freedom may seem contrarian in the present climate of political discussion and debate in which self-interest appears not only to be accepted as the basis for participation but rather roundly affirmed. Indeed, one can see heads nodding when the woman says that she has earned the right to be selfish. From various parts of the political spectrum there is a spirit of libertarianism abroad that exalts economic self-centeredness and the absolutist rights of individuals, families or particular groups. Many of our political representatives evidently have no qualms whatsoever about making such self-interest not only the basis for their votes but the basis of their appeal to voters as well. Some of them, at least, some economists and evidently some religious folks as well would tell us that this is exactly how politics and the economics of our common life ought to work.
Yet when we speak of the “mean-spiritedness” of much that is happening in our times, it is very likely that what bothers us is this societal inability to stop being so self-centered. We know that we can be generous and we would like to see ourselves as a different kind of people.
Another way to say this is that we feel there ought to be another bottom line below the monetary line. Economics (as the root meaning of the word implies) should also be about how we live together, and the bottom line needs to take into account larger considerations, including some form of the golden rule. If the boomers or the busters or seniors or the X Generation are looking for a cause, this is the bottom line that could be there in our debates and in our votes about health care, our responsibility for our environment, control of violence, discipline about guns, our concern for providing jobs and many other issues of common concern.
Some may regard such a perspective in politics as naive, but we shall see. History has a way of reckoning with societies that lose their sense of a shared life--of community.
“If I am not for myself,” asks the Jewish proverb, “who will be? But if I am only for myself, who am I?” And, we may ask, if we are each only for ourselves, who are we?