Friday, February 22, 2013
MINE! MINE! MINE! MINE! MINE!
One day while grocery shopping, I pushed my cart full of food all the way to my car before I realized I'd left my keys in the store. Rather than push the thing all they way back inside and then again out to my car, I left the cart next to my vehicle and ran inside to fetch my keys. I was gone less than 45 seconds. As I ran back to my car, a woman saw me approach and, in a seemingly jokey tone, said, "Aw, I thought I had me some free groceries."
She had a christian fish on her car.
She didn't think about the real owner of those groceries. She didn't think about the affect her theft would have had on that owner. She didn't think about the groceries' destination, whom the food was to feed, etc. She only thought of herself in diametric opposition to her professed religious beliefs.
This is selfishness, pure and simple. And it is this attitude that is at the heart of every fundamental problem in our society. I would even say it applies to the entire fucking planet.
When it boils down, there is a single motivator in all of life, in all its forms: gene propagation. Our genes want to live on within us, generation after generation. This is what evolution does: it enables us as carriers of genetic information to pass those genes on to subsequent generations by adapting us for better survival. This genetic motivation has two aspects: survival of the self and survival of the group. If the self dies, the genes die; if the group dies, the genes fail to propagate. Both self and group are necessary. Yet, we emphasize the self to the exclusion of the group.
We are all interconnected. We all have an affect on each other: we affect others, and they affect us. There's no denying. Well, there is, but that doesn't make it legitimate. Yet, time and time again, we choose to ignore that interconnection. It certainly makes life a lot easier when you're the only one in it.
Selfishness in and of itself is actually not detrimental. There are plenty of situations in which being selfish is, in fact, the best course of action. Regardless, what makes the particular selfishness I'm describing so fundamentally destructive is its disregard of the group. It is the emphasis on the self to the exclusion of the group.
Have you ever been cut off in traffic? When it happened, did you yell some profanities from the safety of your car, calling into question the offending driver's lineage, mental capacity, or even humanity? Chances are, even if you didn't give voice to such thoughts, you still had them. You saw the other driver as the "bad guy" because he cut you off. Did you ever pause a moment to consider that that driver has just as many stresses on his mind as you? That his day may not have been going well at all? That he may, in fact, be a very conscientious driver in all other situations? That this may have been a mere oversight, the kind of simple human error that (without exception) everyone on the planet is capable of? Probably not. You probably got annoyed/pissed off/enraged at the offending driver and blamed him for being an asshole.
(Male pronouns are used exclusively on purpose. 'Cuz that's how I troll.)
No matter what the nature of your interaction with other people, they always enter the situation with as rich, varied, robust, and personal a history as you. Everything in their lives has led them to this point, exactly the same as you. They had childhoods, educations, families, etc. Just as all the events of your life have shaped you into the person you are now, so have all the events of their lives done the same to them. It's yet another example of our fundamental interconnectedness.
Yet, how do we respond to conflict? "Asshole cut me off." "Asshole got my order wrong." "Asshole didn't pay attention." Etc. Etc. Etc. We dehumanize the other person. It's much easier to disrespect and disregard something if you reduce them to a mere orifice. (Which, when you think about it, is actually reducing them to nothing: a hole is actually a space, not a tangible thing. Has anyone ever called you an anus or a sphincter?)
Our culture and society work tirelessly to maintain this selfish way of thinking, too. All the Tea Party politicians spout the rhetoric of "personal responsibility," which is a glossed-over re-branding of Randian social darwinism. "D.I.Y." "Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps." As if each of us exists in a vacuum. "I'm not paying for someone else's health care!" Because, you know, there was never anyone who said we should love our neighbors as ourselves, right?
Religion is the worst of these reinforcers, because it speaks to our fundamental, biological need to stay alive. Religion (at least in the Abrahamic, Western Culture sense) tells the individual he will be rewarded for following the rules. Religion devalues this world and everyone in it. Religion keeps us obsessed with our own mortality, emphasizing death over life ("whoever believes in me shall not perish"). Religion tells the individual he is better than others. ("Kill the infidel! Burn the witch!")
An example that, to me, illustrates this point better than anything: There used to be a TV show on cable about a Mormon family whose business was constructing custom-made high-security SUVs for diplomats and international CEOs (I'm not kidding). The family's religion was a major part of the show. In one episode, the father stated flat out: "I know this world is meaningless. I know the real world is in the kingdom of heaven." Which made me wonder why he was even working in the first place, but whatever. This is what religion tells its believers, that the world (and, by implication, everyone in it) is worthless, that only after death does life truly begin.
But the worst part of all is that we're stuck in a reflexive cycle, spiralling ever downward. The more internalized we are, the less we progress. Just look at popular culture today: there is no longer any innovation, just a re-mixing of everything that's come before. This hasn't been true at any other point in history. We got to a point in our cultural evolution where, instead of striving ever forward and breaking new ground, we spun 180 degrees and began re-working everything that had already been done. A century ago, the Abstract movement was introduced to the world, and it shook things up like crazy. Today, an artist is described in terms of his "influences," i.e. which previous styles he incorporates into his work and how. There is no new "movement" coming.
The ridiculous concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 1% of the population that has occurred in the U.S. over the last 30 years is another prime example, one that has devastating consequences for our future. Do you think any CEO who decided to be paid in stock options thought about how it would fundamentally change his business from one designed to provide goods or services to one designed solely to turn a profit? Or how that change would ultimately harm our economy and millions of people's lives? Or do you think the CEO thought, "Payday!"?
People have been brainwashed into thinking self vs. group is a binary proposition, an either-or question. Pick one, only one, can't have both. Except, you CAN have both. I know because this is exactly where MY mind is. I do for myself in many ways; I fully embrace my selfish nature. But I never lose sight of the affect I have on others or the affect they have on me. A typical example would be me and some friends sitting at a table at a bar. Some of the people are strangers to me (friends of friends). I hear a comment that brings to mind a snarky, probably offensive response. Instead of just blurting it out and making myself laugh, I hold my tongue because I don't know how these unknown people would react, and I don't want to have a negative affect on them. If the people were all my friends whose boundaries are well-known to me, there would be no such qualm. With strangers, there is. Just because they're strangers and I don't know them. It's not about my being a "good" person or "better than others." It's not even something I do with conscious thought. It's fundamentally uncomfortable for me to do that; it feels like exposing my genitals in public.
If I can do it, anyone else can. I'm not special.
And that statement ultimately brings me to the final point: why I hate the humans. Every one of us, without exception, has the potential to behave as I've described above, to act upon our own desires while maintaining conscious awareness of the effects we have on others. It is our choice to remain selfish. We choose it because it's easy. It requires no self-reflection, no effort to see another's viewpoint, nothing. The laziness feeds the selfishness, and the selfishness feeds the laziness. All by choice. It doesn't have to be this way; we make it this way, then blame everyone but ourselves for the outcome. We are stuck in this self-reflexive downward spiral, and I don't believe we are capable of breaking out of it without some outside force acting on us, like aliens landing on the White House lawn. Something that proves, irrefutably, that there is more to existence than our own petty self-interests. Think that's ever gonna happen?
The path we are on has an end that was described by Frank Zappa in his song, "Dumb All Over":
You can't run a race without no feet
And pretty soon there won't be no street
For dummies to jog on or doggies to dog on
Religious fanatics can make it be all gone
I mean it won't blow up and disappear,
It'll just look ugly for a thousand years
Full disclosure: the days in which I question the value of maintaining my own existence outnumber the days in which I don't. And the margin is growing.