I begin my day daily, reading the news, the wrong way to commence a new day, heavy with humanity’s burdens I can do little about.
I would do better in rising with the sun, to set my day’s course like a compass pointing to true North on what matters, enriches, and contributes to well-being, not only for myself but, more importantly, for others.
I remember lines from one of Mary Oliver’s last poems: “Wherever I am, /the world comes after me. /It offers me its busyness. /It does not believe that I do not want it.”
We think of ourselves as separate from the main. Prisoners of self-interest, we’ve relinquished poet John Donne’s maxim, “No man is an island.“
As humans we crave togetherness.
We abhor loneliness.
We require bonding and the cohesion it brings.
I’ve traveled to many places, often alone, but the trips I remember most were those I’ve shared with others. To experience something awesome, but with no one to share it, somehow bottoms out its delight.
Like leaves on a tree, individual in their shape and shimmering on their branches, we feed into a trunk that flourishes when its leaves work collectively. We are citizenry of a greater Self.
We live in a time of electronic fellowship. Billions turn to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, ad infinitum, in a desire to connect, ample evidence we need one another to complete ourselves.
We find the relational in other, more meaningful ways. We love, we marry, we have children, we make friends, we frat with those sharing like interests, we bond with our pets. And yes, we write books—and even do blogs!
Unfortunately, since Descartes with his “I think, therefore I am,” we’ve weighed our lives down with ego indulgence, mindless of that greater entity of collective humanity and of Nature that grants us being and sustains.
In Victorian times, Bentham’s notion of utilitarianism was in vogue, its thesis that what promotes happiness is good; what promotes pain is bad. Essentially hedonistic, it was vehemently satirized by Dickens in Hard Times as serving the wealthy at the expense of the working class.
Modern psychology hasn’t helped mend our ways. Self-validation defines its focus. Witness the plethora of books on self-improvement. I was schooled in behaviorism at the grad level with its notion that humans are little more than pigeons, subject to stimulus response, driven by self-interest. Accordingly, prescribed behavior can be reenforced through operant conditioning that awards the positive; conversely, extinguishing the negative via the punitive. Anthony Burgess, whom I met briefly many years ago, deciphered it rightly in Clockwork Orange (1962), one of the 20th century’s most profound books.
In economics, capitalism is founded upon the same a priori of what’s in it for me, ushering in the Adam Smith credo of self-interest and competition as prerequisites to prosperity. Its consequences are with us daily, the one percent owning half the wealth, the exponential decline of the middle class, the continuous emphasis on growth despite diminishing natural resources.
In his widely published The Selfish Gene (1976), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins tells us that genes act to preserve their self-interest, with altruism, when it does exist, functionally symbiotic as in bees and ants. In fairness, Dawkins does propose that humans have potential capacity with growth in moral intelligence to modify evolution’s predilection for self-interest. Harvard’s eminent psychologist Stephen Pinker, who sets out in The Angels of Our Better Nature (2011) to statistically validate the decline of violence, should be pleased.
On a human scale, I think of Japan, unique in its protocol of collective behavior in the interest of public welfare that critics might disdainfully dismiss as herd mentality or, essentially, a vestige of Hobbes’ “enlightened self-interest.” Nonetheless, Japan is one of our few stable nations, high in economic equality, rare homelessness, and little crime. When the tsunami struck in 2011, unlike in other nations, there were few reports of looting. No need to send in the National Guard. My own memories of Japan confirm a pervasive politeness and honesty I’ve found unequaled in my travels.
In contrast, I think of what took place with the COVID outbreak, nearly a third of Americans not getting vaccinated and, even more, refusing to mask. As one business man told me, “It’s a personal choice.” But then this isn’t confined to America. In France, Belgium, and Germany gargantuan anti COVID protocol demonstrations, some of them violent, have occurred. Theirs is the right to infect others and continue the pandemic. By the way, Japan’s COVID mortality rate was 14.52 versus 233.8 in the U.S. as of Nov. 21, 2021, according to Johns Hopkins University stats.
Reading the news reminds me of the human folly behind the headlines, whether of individuals or nations, in pursuing self-interest. Sowing greed, we have reaped social dissonance with high crime, economic disparity, and homelessness among its results.
Frost wrote a renowned poem, “Mending Wall” in which the persona tells us of his neighbor, who advocates “Good fences make good neighbors.” I’m for tearing down walls that separate us.
In mutuality we find our common denominator, making for a better world.
In discovering the Other, we find ourselves.