December 15, 2008
Selfish is as selfish doesBy Bookworm
I frequently bemoan the fact that my children are extraordinarily selfish, in a way that my peers and I weren't when we were their age. This isn't just my own rose-colored memory looking back on my childhood perfections when compared to my own children. My mother and her friends confirm that we children (all of whom grew up in the 1960s and 1970s) were definitely less self-centered and more willing to contribute to the family's well-being without financial incentives or punitive coercion.
In my own mind, I've often attributed the relative unselfishness my friends and I demonstrated to the fact that my friends and I all had parents scarred either by (a) WWII or (b) escaping the Vietnamese/Cambodian Communists or (c) escaping from the Chinese Communists. Add to those travails the fact that almost all of our parents, in light of their recent immigrant status, had little money and worked ferociously hard to provide life's basics.
These shared histories meant that my friends and I saw our parents as amazing survivors, who willingly sacrificed their time and their energy to support us. We also saw them as genuine victims, made fragile by unimaginably awful experiences. In light of their lives, it didn't seem like too much to clean a room, set a table, empty a dishwasher or vacuum a room.
My children, on the other hand (and my friend's and neighbor's children too), see their parents as people of boundless competence with endless supplies of money -- and that despite the fact that none of my friends and neighbors are rich, although we're all comfortably off. That we all work extremely hard to maintain that comfortable economic situation seems to elude the kids, something that strikes me as peculiar given that my friends and I were very aware of our parents' sacrifices. This generation seems unwilling to see the efforts made on their behalf.
Recent experiences, though, have made me wonder if I'm thinking too narrowly about the selfishness of today's young people when I focus only on parent-child dynamics. The other day, I attended my daughter's middle-school play. The short review is that the school drama coach neglected to teach these young thespians what is probably the most basic skill for a stage performance -- elocution. Even though they were amplified, I was unable to understand a single word these young actors slurred, whispered and mumbled (and that despite the fact that I have extremely good hearing). I can say nothing more about the show, since I had no idea what was going on up there, on the stage.
(And is it just me, or are young people deliberately speaking in rushed and mumbled speech? It's certainly a trend amongst the kids in my neighborhood. I've told these children, my own included, that if they want to communicate something to me, it's their responsibility to speak clearly. Otherwise, I'm just going to ignore them, since I have neither the time nor the energy to decipher their speech.)
While I can say little about the show, I have a lot to say about the audience. Half the audience was made up of children attending the same school as those performing. And of these children, half talked non-stop throughout the performance. Keep in mind as you think about this rudeness that the show was one presented by their friends and peers. Nevertheless, they could not be bothered to stop talking, or even to lower their voices to a whisper. Bad manners? Definitely. But also the kind of selfishness that elevates ones own needs ("I must talk") over those of all others present (such as those performing or those trying to listen).
Intermission was no better. When we left the auditorium, I was buffeted left and right by middle schoolers who, in their own minds, had to get to their various destinations immediately, without regard to those luckless souls caught between them and their goals. Nor were the hard shoves I received followed by apologies. These kids had gotten what they wanted -- motion -- and the Hell with other people's petty concerns (such as the need to remain upright and without bruises).
I might have shaken off these acts (and, indeed, I had mostly forgotten them by morning), but for the fact that I had to drive into San Francisco the next day. Again, I ended up on the receiving end of startlingly selfish behavior -- behavior that wasn't directed at me personally, but that showed an attitude that had the actor as the center of a universe in which no one else existed.
At one intersection, several adult pedestrians (adults! not teens) sauntered slowly across the street on a green light, as drivers patiently waited for the lights to change. To my surprise, when the lights changed, these same adults continued their slow saunter, leaving us drivers fuming as the lights went through a full cycle again, leaving us still sitting at that intersection, having missed our green and now being forced to wait out another red. Nor did this happen to me just once, or twice, or even three times -- I got hit by this pedestrian behavior four times before I got out of the City.
One sees the exact same behavior from bicyclists, by the way. There's a very curvy road that lies between me and a common destination, and it's quite popular with bicyclists. Since the road is too narrow for bike lanes, and visibility is poor, one would think that these vulnerable bicyclists would bike carefully. While some are indeed quite careful, a significant number seem to feel they own the road. I can't tell you the number of times I've come around a blind corner to find two or three bicyclists cruising side by side down the middle of the road, deep in conversation.
I used to think that the startling increase in car-pedestrian and car-bicyclists accidents was because drivers were more careless. While that may be true, I'm beginning to suspect that the pedestrians and bicyclists, despite the obvious disparities in their vulnerability in any engagement with a car, are so intent upon their own desires, and so happy to thumb their noses (figuratively) at cars, that they willingly put themselves into life-threatening situations. (And indeed, statistics show that, in the majority of bike-car accidents, the bicyclist is at fault.)
I could go on with this litany, but I'll refrain from selfishly boring you. I'm also willing to bet that you can instantly summon to mind examples of behavior in which people, especially young people, elevated their own needs to such preeminence that everything around them became secondary. And it's not personal. That is, the actors didn't mumble to insult me. The pedestrians didn't saunter to frustrate me. The neighborhood kids don't speak unintelligibly to befuddle me. The audience wasn't rude to destroy my pleasure in the show. The pushy children weren't out to get me. Instead, in each instance, the actor willingly abandoned the needs of the community (safety, efficiency, courtesy, etc.), simply because the actor thought that his or her needs were paramount, while everyone else's were of no account. In other words, these were profound acts of selfishness by tweens, teens and young adults apparently incapable of thinking beyond their own immediate desires.
If you want, you can view this trend as a microcosm of something playing out on a larger scale across America. In an entitlement culture such as ours has become, there's no room any more for the gentle give and take that comes with a live and let live paradigm. Instead, every interest groups' rights are so overarching that there is no room on the stage for any other group.
It's therefore fascinating to witness spectacle of blacks, gays, women, Hispanics, the handicapped, etc., all duking it out for the title of "most victimized, pathetic, needy interest group in America." It's all about me, me, me. There is no hypothetical public forum called "America" in which people ease their way around each other using basic courtesy, thoughtfulness, and a little give and take. It's no wonder, therefore, that my children are infected by this sense of entitlement, one that sees their needs as the only needs, and all other people as mere facilitators for the fulfillment of their selfish desires.
In a way, Obama is the ne plus ultra of this selfishness phenomenon. He is, after all, someone whose whole career is devoid of any actual accomplishments other than self-aggrandizement, at which he is a master. His needs are so preeminent in his own mind, that he's willing to sacrifice an entire country to his inexperience, because he thinks it would be a fine idea for him to get the recognition he feels he deserves simply because he is who he is. What's sadder than his narcissistic desire for the fulfillment of his own selfish need for aggrandizement is that a little more than half of our citizens displayed the same traits in voting for him: they didn't cast their votes because they thought he'd be good for America; they cast those votes because they wanted to make themselves feel good about voting for a black man. The Hell with America; it's all about me.