I suspect that, quite literally, from the time man first set foot on this planet until now, there has always been a segment of the population infected with the “It’s-All-About-The-Me Virus” – and chances are there always will be. You know the folks I’m talking about. The ones convinced that the world revolves around (and exists to serve) their needs. The ones who, whether they’re in the boardroom, the classroom, the courtroom or the family living room just can’t seem to ever get enough of themselves. The ones intoxicated by the sound of their own voice. The ones who not only have an opinion on virtually every subject imaginable, but are intent, at any cost, on convincing those around them, especially those who dare to disagree, to adopt those opinions as their own – all of them. The ones who confuse happiness with the misguided sense of satisfaction that sometimes derives from tearing others down. The ones who, from their metaphorical air-conditioned “Sky Boxes” perched high above the “50 yard line of Life,” look with quiet disdain on those above and below them (i.e., in the “nose bleed” section and end zone seats), as being less worthy. The ones who smugly (and naively) have convinced themselves that, as long as they are at the helm of the ship, adversity will know better than to come knocking on their door.
But, if my experiences over the past several months are an accurate barometer that segment appears to be growing at an alarming rate. In its early stages, the symptoms of “the Virus” are fairly innocuous. Those lost in the world of me may, for example, find themselves: ignoring red lights and stop signs with impunity, oblivious to the risk of harm to others (and themselves) they create in doing so; clinging to their cellphones like grim death at all hours of the day and night, lest they miss an e-mail, text message or call that would give them the chance to display their “importance” not only to the sender or caller, but to those around them; or being more interested in the outcome of the game on their silenced ESPN phone app, than the smile on their daughter’s face as she strikes the final note on an almost flawless Sunday afternoon piano recital. The Virus also is to blame for those who approach an oncoming pedestrian on a sidewalk-built-for-two and refuse to deviate from the center-line, as well as those who unabashedly race around the opposite end of a line of parked cars, so that they can steal a parking space in a holiday-crowded mall from someone who had already been waiting patiently for it to empty with their blinker on.
If left unchecked, however, the Virus’ symptoms almost always increase in severity to include a complete loss of empathy and the rapid loss of peripheral vision. In extreme cases, it can even lead to total myopia (i.e., a complete inability or desire to see or care about anyone other than themselves). Examples of those in the more advanced stages of the disease include those who, while savoring the last bite of their Australian lobster tail at an upscale steakhouse, can simultaneously (and vociferously) argue against grass roots campaigns and legislative initiatives aimed at modestly increasing the minimum wage, so that the busser father of two who later will clean their table might have at least a fighting chance of making ends meet. They also include the folks, who, cloaked in the security blanket of their gold-plated health care plans, stand at the water cooler advocating against admittedly less-than-perfect, but you-have-to-start-somewhere attempts to afford the less fortunate an opportunity to secure minimal insurance protection for themselves and their family, under the guise of “what those folks really should be doing is getting a ‘real job’ with benefits.” On occasion, those afflicted act as bullies in the workplace and in their own homes, berating those they deem inferior to them (e.g., colleagues, staff members, spouses, children, etc.) with behaviors and words that are manipulative, condescending, demeaning and hurtful.
Fortunately, the “It’s-All-About-The-Me Virus” usually runs its course. In time, most of us come to realize that we weren’t put on this Earth to pursue The Me, but rather to be sensitive (and attentive) to the needs of The We. We discover that true happiness depends on our ability (and our willingness) to set aside our sense of self-importance often and long enough to affirm, build up, inspire and bring hope to others. Some arrive at this understanding naturally (i.e., as part of their individual development and maturation), while others find it in their faith. Still others are inspired by the example set by others or in their readings. Some eyes are opened by the radiance and genuineness of the spontaneous smile that greets their first other-centered act of kindness and, almost instinctively, like a moth drawn to the light, they keep coming back for more. And then there are those who, regrettably, arrive at a fuller awareness of our human connectedness by a moment or a period of adversity (or need) in their own life or the life of someone they love. From my perspective, it doesn’t matter how, why or even when any of us get there; what’s important is that someday, in some way, we do and that when we do we find the courage and the strength to act on our new found sense of selflessness, so that the true healing can begin.
Why is it important? Because I believe that: (1) as great as the needs that exist in the world are (and they are great), our individual and collective ability and capacity to meet those needs is greater; (2) those needs are not confined to some remote, underprivileged area halfway across the globe – they exist in those who populate our places of work and worship, on both sides of the podium in the schools where are children are being educated, in the stores and restaurants that we frequent, the social settings in which we routinely find ourselves and, on occasion, sitting across from us at the dining room table; (3) the events that give rise to needs don’t discriminate based on political ideology, age, ethnicity, gender, social status and/or educational background and they almost never are a matter of choice; (4) when it comes to meeting needs one person can make a difference simply by using their hands to lend a helping one, their feet to walk a mile in another’s footsteps, their heart to display empathy and compassion, their mind to become educated, their tongue to speak out on behalf of those who may have temporarily lost or forgotten their “voice” or, even less demanding, their ears to listen; and (5) every tear that falls, every heart that breaks and every life that’s lost, literally or figuratively, due to indifference, inaction and/or ignorance diminishes all of us.
Trust me on this one: I’ve seen the handiwork of this “disease” – it’s ugly. But, I’ve also been privileged to witness giving (other-centered) hearts in action and the life-affirming fruits of the seeds they sew, which are a magnificent sight to behold. We can do better than we’re doing. We owe it to ourselves (and to those who stand to benefit from the gift of us) to do better. It is our true calling. I’ll see you in the end zone!