Self-interest is not the highest interest. It is important, of course, but not the most important. Many, however, believe that their self-interest is what matters most, even to the exclusion of others’ self-interest. Add the “special-interest” groups from our community to our congress, and you have a society in inter-turmoil and conflict. Too often, it is one against the other, the “right” in combat with the “left,” revealing a nation divided.
The ultimate, hidden truth is, we either all win, or nobody wins. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time; but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Sooner or later, it becomes clear that the interests of a few have dominated the resources, time and attention of the many. At great cost to us all.
I have been held captive by a single notion, first espoused by a great philosopher. His guiding dictum: “The greatest good to the greatest number.” For “Star Trek” fans, this dictum is put forward by “Spock,” who at the apparent point of death, told his Captain, “It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Fortunately, he did not die, nor have his succinct words.
Yet fighting that simple truth of enormous wisdom is the personal plea I have heard so many times and in so many contexts: “What about me?” “What about my interests; how do I get mine?” While these are of vital importance, they are not the final interest. The final interest must concern the whole, and just how the interest of this or that person – or party or nation – affects the interests of the whole.
Picture this: everyone fighting to get his or her interest to the top of the heap of the agenda of the group, whether large or small. Then our entire time is spent listening to the one, followed by the next, rather like a talent contest. Then our entire time is focused on individuals in self-parade, while the interests of the whole, the circumstances of the audience are not addressed.
Unfortunately, this is the state of our society today: we are perpetually focused on individuals, on specific persons as icons, models, heroes, or heart-throbs. We miss the mountain-range of the whole due to staring only at the peaks of the few.
In our current culture, self-interest rules. I have seen this time and again while conducting marriage counseling. The couple comes with their relationship reduced to “me versus you,” to “my interest over against your interest.” Lost entirely is the love relationship, and whether they were ever truly in love. When they have been, there is a primal base on which to rebuild a relationship, where ultimately what comes to matter most, as it did in the beginning, is “we first.” If they can only regain their sense of “us,” they can move forward into a new life, a restored relationship. If they can move past either “your” interest or “my” interest and locate their priority at “our” interest, they just may succeed at building new relational home.
We are all a part of something greater than ourselves, from family to neighborhood, from religious community to nation. It is surely time to refocus our lives to what matters most to our community and beyond, to what might work to restore our nation, before self-interest destroys corporate interests, before segments decimate the integrity of the whole.