• Posted: Aug 22, 2009 12:57:54
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"You in line?" I asked.
"No, you go right ahead. I'm just waitin' here to die."
"Oh?" I said, with some incredulity.
In all earnestness, the old man explained: "All my kids are in insane asylums. I dun my bit for humanity."
I didn't actually know what to say to that. But I took him at his word and proceeded to place my order.
A true conversation and, for sure, a disgruntled customer. Just what is meant by "dun my bit for humanity"? And, if things haven't quite worked out the way you hoped, is that good reason to feel disappointment, to throw one's self in the toilet?
Not everybody behaves with selfless motivation. To consider the consequence of our actions on the rest of humanity is, perhaps, getting to be more common, with growing concerns for global warming, the deterioration of oceans, poor air quality, scarce and contaminated fresh water, and inconsistent adequacy and wholesomeness of foodstuffs. But selflessness is not yet the general rule. We work to feed ourselves and we work to feed our offspring, most of the time in direct competition if not open conflict with the rest of humanity.
Anthropological evidence is that wasn't always the case. Studies of small hunter/gatherer groups show a great deal of mutual cooperation and sharing of both labor and resources. Selfishness is quite severely criticized and punished. Unit cohesion for survival purposes is held to be extremely important. Flash forward to today's complex societies and you just don't see that degree of cohesion. Despite many notable attempts at reviving the ethic from Jesus to Mohammed to Mao Zedong, JFK, MLK, and now the Taliban and Obama, the innate desire to operate independently to "get ahead of the crowd" is irresistible. Little wonder the bitter sarcasm of the old man quoted above.
Then again, what if you've taken to heart the need to cooperate and effect good outcomes for others as well as yourself? And what if, as with that old man, you've more or less failed? Is that good reason to despair?
Within nature, a behavior that has for generations proven successful is sometimes the very behavior that precipitates extinction. Why? Because external conditions change. Consistency becomes target of opportunity or plain inflexible vulnerability. Our ability to learn from our mistakes increases our adaptive flexibility within a dynamic natural environment. That old man's assumption there is nothing to be learned by the rest of us from his failures is wrong. There, potentially, is a great deal to be learned. That few of us seem to be paying him any attention in that regard is our failure, not his.
May your bit for humanity be appreciated for not only the good outcomes you effect, but for the wisdom to be gained from your failures and missteps.
Sunday, July 14th, 1991