I recently dreamed this thought: our country’s mantra is every man for himself. In that light, it makes perfect sense that one of our national obsessions is about the economy. Remember It’s the economy, stupid? Of course we care so much about making as much money as we can, making more than the other guy. We are on our own. Nobody is going to help us if we fall on hard times. It’s all about feeding, clothing, and sheltering our families, first and last. Every man for himself.
When I wrote this in my journal in the early pre-dawn, it looked a bit puny on the page. It was momentous when I opened my eyes, as if I’d been mucking around in the secret stuff of life, that realm where answers live. Trying to catch this dream message is like seeing a landscape all sharp and shimmery after a storm, as if for the first time. I’m so immersed, so indoctrinated in this story that I rarely even notice it. It seems so true that it’s boring. Obvious. Hardly worth stating. But our lives are not only about survival and meeting basic needs. Everyone should be able to do at least that in a just world. There’s plenty to go around, but the story of scarcity makes us forget.
The dark side of every-man-for-himself is that we can never feel secure or happy, no matter how much we earn or accumulate. Living so isolated from one another keeps us feeling insecure and anxious. Wondering when the hammer will fall on us. When you know no one will catch you if you fall, when you worry that if you fall on hard times, you’re on your own. This colors how you see the world, and yourself in it.
If we lived otherwise—from certainty that we all support each other, for instance—what would be different? How would it color our lives?
The Puritan judgmental streak in American culture is a mile wide. I encountered it just yesterday in conversation with my son. His new high school, like all City schools, has a requirement for a certain number of community service hours. I asked him if he’s heard anything yet about what they suggest, or if he’d thought about what he would like to do. He had not. Then he said something that really surprised me. He said, I refuse to help those who won’t help themselves.
I tried to unpack his assumptions about people in need, asking him for an example, bringing up visits they’d had in Middle School with recovering addicts, returning offenders, and the homeless. He had come back from those days full of stories and admiration for people’s tenacity and resilience. This time, though, he said addicts certainly don’t help themselves by becoming addicted. I have to hope this is a developmental hiccup, rather than his being poisoned by the toxic othering going on in our Presidential campaign.
Americans are quick to label people’s flaws and make moral judgments about behavior and character. It seems to be part of how we distinguish ourselves and raise upstanding citizens. These are the distorting lenses through which we see ourselves as exceptional, the best nation in the world, when many statistics about infant mortality, educational achievement, levels of poverty, access to health care and others do not bear this out.
I wonder how much of our self-centered competitiveness is programmed in, and could instead be socialized out. Living with a teenager, I understand that it’s a developmental stage we all go through, but we don’t have to live there for the rest of our lives. That’s one of the beautiful functions of those community service hours. There is no better feeling than working together to help people.
“Helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.” ~ Rachel Naomi Remen, Shambhala Sun, September 1999
It’s fun to imagine a different mindset instead of every-man-for-himself. That is but one limited way to see the world; it is not reality. The question is simple, how do we want to live? Maybe everyone for each other is worth a try.
- Caring instead of competitiveness.
- Statistics on the number of trees planted rather than housing starts.
- Instead of weekend movie grosses, the number of theatrical and art openings in a weekend.
- “Let’s do the colors” on NPR’s Marketplace, instead of “Let’s do the numbers.”
- “It’s the beauty, stupid.”
- A national pastime of memorizing and sharing poetry.
- Social equity would become as natural as breathing.
- Gross happiness index.
- Social welfare programs become unnecessary because we take care of each other, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.
- Instead of living in anxiety and insecurity, alone and isolated, we live in confidence that we are connected, bright facets of the magnificent jewel of creation.