When I was younger, I thought about my goals and dreams in terms of “me.” What did I want to do? What did I want to accomplish? What did I want to experience?
When I married, I thought about goals and dreams in terms of “we.” I had to consider another person’s aspirations. My desires were still important, but so were my wife’s.
With children, our mission statement changed to “us.” We all had needs, and all of those needs had to be considered. At times, one person’s wants would take precedent, and at other times someone else’s would. Often, we would find a middle ground. Living in harmony meant compromise. I couldn’t have my way all of the time, but it was acceptable to have it some of the time. By being flexible, I was able to appreciate other’s viewpoints. In many ways, the consideration of their needs improved the quality of my life. I shifted from a self-serving “me” to a more balanced “us.”
Along with that change came an awareness that happiness and satisfaction were not found in the latest “toy” or trip. Contentment was found in relationships, a spiritual life, and a connection with the greater world around me. Service was more satisfying than selfishness.
That is not to say that I became a co-dependent vessel of a person. I believe that my needs are just as important as anyone else’s in my family. Also, the move to “us” didn’t require that we all became clones of one another. I didn’t have to lose myself and blindly agree with those around me. However, I needed to respect their opinions and acknowledge that their thoughts were just as valid to them as mine were to me.
When our founders came to America, they accepted the harsh realities of a primitive existence because they wanted to gain something they felt was more important. For some, that something was the freedom to worship as they wished. Their individual beliefs were different than the mainstream beliefs in their native England.
The emphasis of individual rights has been a hallmark of our history, and we venerate individuals who, by their supposedly singular actions, have gained great wealth, status, and power. The past gave us icons like Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas Edison. More recently, we admire Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. We are taught that their individualism and focus made them wealthy, powerful, and successful. We somehow equate these characteristics with happiness. Of course, that is not the case. It is also not the case that these individuals were islands unto themself. For instance, Thomas Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb; he refined a device that had been worked on by almost two dozen other inventors. His real genius was his ability to market this idea. Bill Gates didn’t create MS-DOS (the precursor of Windows); he bought the code’s rights and then tweaked it. Some may argue that Mark Zuckerberg didn’t come up with the idea of Facebook; he likely appropriated the concept from fellow Harvard students, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. Beyond these truths, all of these individuals’ real success was wholly dependent on the legions of others who offered their hard work, expertise, and opinion. We celebrate the individual, but we should be celebrating the team. Without the group, none of these superstars would have had the level of success that they did.
As Americans, we continue to be obsessed with influential individuals who, by their drive, live a life that most of us could only imagine having. Many of us want to be like these people, and we want to have what they have. When we can’t realize their status, we settle to connect with them by association. We join their ideological club, and we worship at their altar.
This focus on individualism without compassion has created a country of citizens who believe that the world is supposed to meet THEIR needs, celebrate THEIR ideas, and validate THEIR beliefs. They view life in terms of absolutes-winner vs. loser, black vs. white, good vs. evil. Life becomes a reality TV show where victory is achieved when the other person is destroyed and humiliated.
In such a scenario, morals and values become cliches, stage devices to justify real objectives. In such a world, global decisions are based on singular desires. We support actions that offer us a job now but destroy the environment for all in the future. We deny healthcare to our fellow citizens, so a relatively few insurance company stockholders can become more affluent. We denigrate individuals who we perceive as different from us to maintain a false sense of power and superiority. In the process of achieving these goals, we lose sight of the fact that we live in a society, and that societies function best when all members have a seat at the table.
I’m writing this the day after the first presidential debate of 2020. A discussion that celebrated tactics over substance, insults over content, and rage over rational. A debate of rude interruptions. A debate that was incoherent and useless to the viewer. A debate where lies were presented as fact. A debate where “winning” and embarrassing the opponent was more important than offering a vision for a future. It was a shameful event: a global embarrassment and a mockery of a process intended to educate and inform.
We will all vote as we see fit this November. However, I would ask you to consider what is best for our country, instead of what seems to be best for you. I pray for this.