One of the first things that you learn in kindergarten or pre-school or even from your parents (if you have siblings) is the value of sharing. Sharing your toys, your crayons, room in the car, possession of TV viewing rights, you name it.
Folks in charge find themselves trying to imprint this on us because, frankly, it doesn’t come naturally. I think that even though man is a social creature, he is a selfish beast and believes that life is a zero-sum game: anything you get somehow detracts from me.
When my sister and I were young we used to regard with irritation the pleas you saw in newspapers and on TV to donate money to “send a kid to camp.” This frosted our cookie because no one ever sent us to camp. (The fact that we didn’t really want to go was beside the point, of course.) Why were complete strangers were being feted to some festive outdoor lifestyle while we were bored silly every summer staying at home?
To be sure, we didn’t understand that the youngsters being offered this leafy boon were disadvantaged kids from poor or rough backgrounds; youngsters who had a much tougher daily life than our dull but essentially decently-upholstered existence. Even if we had understood, we might still have been resentful, because when you’re young, the only word that really means anything is “me.”
Things get worse in junior high, and – can intensify or fade in the later teenage years. Some folks mask their self-obsession with the appearance of caring as expressed through a “cause,” but that’s often just social fashion as much as anything; compassion as an accessory.
I’m not saying that it doesn’t actually happen that some youngsters truly open their hearts, but those people who really care and connect with others without regard for their own ego or pride are playing for a small team, indeed.
With any luck, one emerges into one’s 20s and 30s with a broader view, and the influences of family, work, military duty, etc. make us more of a “we” person. But lately, our luck has been running cold.
Social philosophers talk about “compassion fatigue,” something I think is real. In a time of scarcity (or at least the danger of scarcity), many Americans today have pulled in their helping hand and instead have decided to blame the person in need.
Out of work? You lazy bum. No health insurance? Get a job. Young, pregnant and scared? Close your ankles. Post-traumatic stress? You knew the risks. Can’t afford college? Well, I didn’t go, either. Abused by a spouse? Your bad decision. Prisons overcrowded and unsafe? Shouldn’t have done the crime.
You’re probably thinking that at this point I’m going to make the philosophical, spiritual or humanitarian case for everyone joining hands and singing “We Are the World” as we empty our pockets.
Nope. I am as selfish as the next person. I do that same “what’s in it for me?” calculation that any narcissist does; I might even do it better.
However, if you look closely at this whole compassion thing, you start to conclude that there’s a real-life dollars and sense benefit to (visualize me rolling my eyes here) helping your fellow man, either through voluntary contribution or public funds.
The most obvious example is in health care; indigents swamp emergency rooms for treatment, which is much more expensive that regular medical care, all of which comes out of your pocket, one way or another. Providing extended day care, homework help and other assists to young families reduces the chances of an at-risk kid becoming an expensive drain on society through the juvenile (and later adult) justice system.
“So, if we don’t give these kids a bunch of stuff and attention they’re gonna join a gang? What about morality and right or wrong?” you may say. And it’s easy for you to say if you grew up in a stable family on a tree-lined suburban neighborhood; less easy if you are in a messed-up home living with too many relatives inside and gang-bangers outside.
I’m just enumerating a truth most of us know deep-down; that preventing a problem is almost always cheaper than solving one. Which is cheaper: not smoking or lung cancer surgery? Which is smarter: fixing your brakes or having your car smash into a wall, or another car?
You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to see the value of helping out the less fortunate. You can be the most cold-hearted son-of-a-mule and still see the bottom line advantages of that “sharing” stuff we were supposed to learn when we were 5 years old.