Unselfishness is the willingness to be inconvenienced for the sake of others. It is a ready solution to many of the problems our nation currently faces.
This solution sounds simplistic, but it is far from simple. It is hard to put into practice because it goes against the grain of American individualism if not all human nature. Still, it works and the possibility of its success is enough to commend it.
The principle of unselfish behavior has no copyright restrictions. Its roots are secular as well as religious. It is a moral teaching that is shared by all the Christian denominations and by all the major religions of the world. It requires no particular skill other than the capacity for empathy and generosity.
A willingness to be inconvenienced for the sake of another is something that can save our nation and put an end to much of our current social strife, including poverty, crime and even COVID-19.
It is naive, of course, to propose that unselfishness can cure us of the virus. But unselfishness can help us limit the spread of the virus.
Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the Director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified recently before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate. During the course of his testimony, Redfield held up a mask and called that simple face covering “the most powerful public health tool that we have.” He further averred that the wearing of masks could work to bring the Coronavirus under control in 6-12 weeks.
I do not rule out the possibility that some people have legitimate health-related reasons for not wearing a mask. My fear, however, is that much of the resistance to mask wearing is rooted more in selfishness than in anything else.
Masks are inconvenient and unpleasant. They can be uncomfortable, especially when they are worn for a long period of time. They fog up the lenses of those of us who wear glasses. The requirement that they be worn cuts into the freedom to go about as one pleases.
Nevertheless, wearing a mask protects the wearer and those nearby.
Accepting the cost of inconvenience seems a small price to pay toward bringing the virus under control in a matter of months. Unselfishness will not cure our land of the blight of poverty, but it can go a long way toward the mitigation of poverty.
Paul Simon, late U.S. Senator from Illinois, quoted in his autobiography (but did not name) a U.S. attorney who estimated that 80% of all crime in this country is caused by poverty. Simon went on to say, in light of such a statistic, that any reasonably objective person looking at the situation in our society must conclude that poverty is a major problem.
He wished that the fact of poverty, both at home and abroad, bothered Americans more than it does.
One way to counter poverty is to provide for a living wage. What constitutes a living wage might be difficult to define, particularly given regional differences across our land. Whatever a living wage is, it is more than a subsistence income, which is just enough to barely survive on the physical level.
We can suppose that a living wage is an amount sufficient, without additional government subsidy, to provide a quality standard of living. A living wage would meet reasonable needs for food, shelter, clothing and well-being.
If wage-earners are to have a living wage in their paychecks, consumers will need to guard against selfishness at the cash register. It will fall to purchasers to accept the inconvenience of a higher price as a way of contributing to the benefit of others.
I hasten to add, however, that the burden of a living wage should not fall to the consumer alone. Manufacturers and captains of industry also will need to unselfishly accept lower profits and shareholders smaller dividends.
Asking those who are able to accept the inconvenience of higher prices and reduced profits is not to introduce socialism into our existing system; it is asking our existing system to value the unselfishness it already proposes to admire. An additional social concern unselfish behavior can help put to rest is that of racial injustice.
It is my judgment that the rush to claim “All Lives Matter” without first listening with care to the cry of those who say “Black Lives Matter” is an act of selfishness that uncritically values one’s own experience higher than another’s.
Unselfish listening has to take place if racial justice is to be achieved. We who are unknowingly privileged and oblivious to the power we possess, even if it is not a hammer we wield, need to listen and learn what underprivilege is and what shapes powerlessness takes. Only then will we discover that what we have come to call “our history” is not everyone’s history and that our narrative is not everyone’s story.
No one should suppose these necessary listening sessions will be easy. They will be uncomfortable and inconvenient. But that discomfort and inconvenience need to be unselfishly shouldered if we are to come to a point in which all lives truly matter.
It should not take an immunologist to see that old-fashioned consideration of others is a kind of therapeutic in the short term, and a vaccine in the long term, to help us resolve our social crises.
In the words of an old preacher from my faith tradition, “We dig ourselves out of our own graves by devoting ourselves to the resurrection of others.”