Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Me First, Me Only, Me All the Time

That's not my motto.  But it does appear to be the one so many people adhere to.

None of them would claim it, of course, but if we assign personal philosophies to people based on what we see of their actions, a shockingly large proportion of the population lands in this pigeonhole.

Imagine: you're tooling down the highway, minding your own business, but then you notice a vehicle behind you.  Well, maybe not a vehicle - just its grille.  It's so close, that's all you can see.

Slow down.  He stays right there.  Edge over to give him more room, he zooms around you, maybe blaring on his horn because you damned fool, can't you see he's in a hurry?  Can't you see he's running late?  What's your problem?  And then he goes to crowd the next damned fool who can't see he's late, that he's in a hurry.

That's "Me First."  That's failing to recognize that you cannot always be first, you cannot always be at the front of the line.

That reminds me of a little show I saw Way Back When, a children's special that featured, among other things, a cartoon with an obnoxious little girl who kept insisting "ladies first!  Ladies first!"  Except her group was captured by tigers and while the tigers were debating who to have for dinner first, she insisted "ladies first!"  So naturally, she got eaten first.  Then the rest of the party was rescued.  Irony is delicious.

I have worked with a lady who is really not a bad person, but when her phone rings, you suddenly disappear.  Her conversation is what matters; not yours.  Someone called her, so that has to be attended to right now.  She wanders around while on the phone; she wanders into the path of people carrying furniture which is heavy, she wanders into the path of a laden forklift which is moving backwards.  She wanders, somehow hitting the trifecta, toward a truck that is backing up, where men moving furniture are waiting to disembark, to clear a path for a forklift.  You could hardly plan to be more in the way, yet she does it with aplomb.  She's not deliberately rude, it just happens.

This is a sad case of Me Only.  This is inconsideration at its worst, manifested in a person who is really a good person, but unfortunately self-absorbed when she shouldn't be.  Her stated goals are good, her actions when she's thinking about them are good, but her ability to sympathize with others around her when she isn't actively thinking about them is a flat line.  If she isn't looking directly at you, you don't exist.

Then there's the last one.  You see them at the store: the loud, pushy customer that insists on having privileges that don't exist.  They Know Someone.  They've made a Telephone Call to Your Boss.  Those rules posted on the counter, "All Sales Final" and "No Checks" just don't apply to them.  What you're trying to achieve isn't important, the value of the transaction they're trying to undo isn't important, what's important is that whatever it is they want, they get it.

These people are almost inexcusable.  I cannot see why such behavior is tolerated.  I have tolerated it, reluctantly, with a smile plastered on my face and a grimace behind my eyes, and handled such people as quickly as possible because it's easier and faster than the alternative.

What's the alternative?  Well, in my perfect world it's a quick, sharp rap with a Louisville Slugger.  Unfortunately, the Slugger approach has its own drawbacks, mostly unpleasant court dates and learning to tolerate your cellmate's bad habits.  The Me All the Time person is the kind of person who takes the implied social contract - more on that another day - and tears it to shreds.  They simply disregard the needs and wants of anyone around them, and worst of all, they do it deliberately.  This kind of person knows exactly what he or she is doing, and they simply don't care.  Each personal goal achieved, however minute, is a triumph.  Life is a constant game of one-upmanship, regardless of whether anyone else is competing.

How did we arrive at this place?  It appears that our society is rewarding this kind of behavior.  The popular surreality show "Survivor" carries the slogan "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast."  Nothing in there about teamwork.  And though competitors do form "alliances," the nature of the alliances formed is shaky to start with - everyone knows that only one person can win, that the alliance must fail.  Some alliances are formed by people looking to surround themselves with other competitors whose coattails they can ride, and others who are dragged along to be stalking horses.  That's "Me All the Time."  Anyone else's needs are secondary.

What are some good examples of the flip side, not "me" but "we?"  I hold forth the US Marines.  Their initiative and flexibility is what makes US Marines such capable forces, but it demands a high degree of interdependability between each soldier.  Each Marine has every other Marine's back, knowing his own back is just as well covered.

Other examples: US Navy Seabees, the Construction Battalion.  Think Marines, but with bulldozers.  You think construction work is hard, try doing it under fire.  These guys do, and with the same kind of mutual reliance as the Marines.  I don't think I could be a Marine, but I could see myself as a Seabee.

Who else?  Boy Scouts?  Hmm.  Maybe.  Coast Guard?  Absolutely.  In fact, the Coasties are a whole lot less "Me First" and a whole lot more "You First."  You don't see many others willingly flying into a storm to fish out some foolish boater who should've known better.

Remember the movie Pay It Forward? The kid who is the main character makes it a social experiment, for every favor you ever do, don't ever expect someone to pay it back.  Tell the recipient to "pay it forward," and  the effect snowballs until you have an entire country populated by people who do for others without expectation of reward, with the expectation that the recipient will do for someone else.

It's too bad that's a work of fiction.  I think I'd rather live there.  This country was founded on an ideal of individuality, of the right to be who and whatever you are going to be, without judgment or limitation.  But as well as individuals, you can never escape the fact that we all live in this country together, we're all neighbors - if not to each other, then neighbors to other neighbors.  Doing for yourself is one thing in times of survival, but doing for each other strengthens and unifies the entire country, and when the country is stronger, when the neighbors are stronger, when you know you can rely on and trust the person next to you even if you've never seen him before, you are stronger, safer, and have done for yourself.

E Pluribus Unum.

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