My dearest Shosh and Jaialai:
A battle is well-underway for the heart and soul of America — the vision of what America should stand for and how we should live. The recent deaths of, and memorials for, Senator John McCain and Aretha Franklin have brought this battle directly into the cross-hair of public discourse.
One side believes, as President Ronald Reagan once said, “America is, and always will be, a shinning city on a hill.” As our founding fathers acknowledged, America is the great social experiment in — an example of — what could be. We lead in hope that others would follow and the world would be made into a better place. Inherent in this vision is the idea that the inhabitants of this planet are inter-related and interdependent. In other words, life is not a zero-sum game: we can both win.
The other side believes self-interest must reign supreme. Life is a zero-sum game: others win at our expense.
But, these are not the only two possible visions for a good life, a life well-lived. For example, a third posits that by helping others, we make our own lives better. I subscribe to this vision of how to live well.
The failures of both the first and second visions is that they are both inherently self-centered. “We are the shining example for the world … look at us! copy us! learn from us!” is only slightly better than “me first!”
Concerns relating to the latter “me first!” approach are far better explained by Thomas Hobbes’ discussion in Leviathan of the state of nature and its attendant problems and by Garrett Hardin’s discussion of the tragedy of the commons than I could ever attempt to explain here. To my simple mind, the greatest worry of the latter approach is simply that we human beings have an insatiable appetite for power and for things. As discussed previously, our greed is without bound, and we will fight others to catch that last fish, caring not for future generations. Individual greed is quick to foist societal costs onto others. We mine the land for our benefits, but leave the scars and poisonous soup that remains for others to clean up. We forget the “others” who are harmed is us. It’s our land. It’s our Earth. It’s our environment. Those who filled the air in China and India with pollutants condemn their children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, brethren, etc., to a life of misery. Thus, the “me first!” approach cannot be right.
My fear regarding the “we are the example” approach is that it is similarly susceptible to human weaknesses — particularly our tendency to be blinded by our own ambitions and desires, and to project those ambitions and desires onto others as if the evil we do are for the goods of others. The Crusades, where Christians killed tens of thousands of non-Christians to “save” them, are but one example. There are many others. For example, this “higher necessity” argument underlies the false rationale that it is better for the Catholic Church to cover up its failings than to admit and expose the sexual assaults by those entrusted with power upon those over whom they have power. I suspect it, too, plays a role in the recent accusation by the Vatican’s former ambassador to the U.S. that the Pope is engaged in malfeasance. I say this without judgement or blame. God and his Church are far more powerful and knowledgeable than I. They can sort it out for themselves without my passing judgement one way or the other. My fear is simply that human beings are fallible. Who am I to say the god to which another prays is false? I can only say the God to whom I pray is true. Unless we are burdened with the mercurial gods told in Greek and Roman mythologies, I must assume our omnipotent and omniscient God is capable of taking care of Himself without the need for me to condemn my brethren (who He created) but who happens to hold a different belief than I.
My understanding and thought processes are far more basic. In the same vein as Tip O’Neill’s belief that all politics is local, I think a good philosophy for living well should also be animated by local interests. The smile that spread across my neighbor’s face after having been fed a warm meal on a cold night brings me joy. The tears of happiness animated by the knowledge that the family is finally safe and their refugee status recognized by the international community warm my heart. I may not know much, but I know that helping others make me happy and gives my life meaning. Apparently, I am not the only one armed with this belief.
Live well, my sons. Help others. Be happy.
All my love, always,