I have always seen selfishness as one of the key sins of humankind. To think of yourself with little to no concern about others just seems to be a horrible way to live, not to mention being of little benefit to the evolution of a better world. However, there are many who defend selfishness with things like “it’s the way of the world,” or, “you have to take care of number one,” or any number of other cliches.
One of my favorite defenses of me-first thinking is a quote from the flight attendant safety speech, “in the event of an emergency, when the air masks fall from the bulkhead, put yours on first before assisting others.” This instruction, however, is not an urging to be selfish, rather, it is about practicality and making oneself more able to help others.
You see, if you help someone else put on their mask before you put on yours, you may be overcome by lack of oxygen and incapacitated thus leaving yourself unable to help at all. The difference between this and selfishness is plain to see. When I put on my mask first, I am doing something for me so that I will then be able to do something for you. The key is in the motive. I am not doing for me so that I can survive regardless of your survival, I am doing this so that we can both survive and potentially go on to save more people.
Do not get me wrong. I understand the need for self-care and wellbeing, I get it, people need to look after themselves. Sometimes you must say no and do things to keep yourself in good shape. But that does not mean doing it all the time. It does not give us a pass on giving and being helpful. It, like the air mask, is just something necessary to make us better able to serve our world, family, friends, or organization.
But why is this such a big deal? Why is derailing selfish thinking so important? Imagine millions of years ago in our early humanity. Somewhere someone had an urge or idea to partner with others to remove the danger of a predator, and because of that simple act of service, we survived. Since then, we have used cooperation and helpfulness as a superpower to help us defy extinction over eons. If, those millions of years ago, our early predecessors had stuck to their guns and decided to be selfish and only look out for number one, humanity would have never had a chance and you and I would not be here.
You see, we are not the biggest, fastest, or strongest. There are so many dangers that can take us out. However, when we work together to share our collective brawn, speed, and intelligence, we can be remarkably successful. Long story short, we have realized our greatest, most earth-shattering achievements because we worked together and helped each other, not because we competed against each other.
What I am getting at is this. If we want to solve the pressing problems of our time, we cannot keep forging ahead with selfish motives. The predators trying to take us out are not just disease, the climate, or war, some of them are stealthier, and one of them, maybe the biggest one, is us propelled by our own self-centered motivations. The win-at-all-cost message that has been pushed down our throats over the last 50+ years must dwindle away. If we want to move forward and conquer what ails us, we need to cooperate more, not keep competing to be number one.
So, what to do. It comes down to all of us preaching a new message of cooperation instead of competition. It comes down to all of us demonstrating the power of We instead of flexing the power of Me. And this is not just something to think about at home or in our communities, this is something we need to stress in our workplaces. We spend at least a third of our lives at work. Thus, if we genuinely want to move in a different direction, maybe that is the prime place to start.
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