Uniqueness

When I was in high school, some friends talked about a boy they knew in another town. They described him as being “so smart,” and then added, “He’s just like you; you would really like him.” They intended it as a sincere compliment. To me it felt like a threat. They thought it encouraging that somebody was agreeable to my viewpoint about life. I saw it as a dilution of my uniqueness. Today I suggest that we deny “self” to benefit “us.”

Articles 39 and 46 explore what we do with differences; they help to give us identity. We don’t want to be indistinguishable. On the other hand, article 46 points out that we do not want separation. The individual poles should attract, not repel. Coming together increases our possibilities as we move forward harmoniously.

Selfishness

Article 55 discussed the ways that self stands in the way of progress. Teamwork, pulling together in the same direction, multiplies strength. Article 71 includes a major theme of this blog: blurring the difference between self and other, blending the actors into a successful “we.” Selfishness achieves less permanent progress than does togetherness. Happiness is strongest in shared advancement.

In the article 50 dream allegory, the dreamer failed to be aware of the presence of others. We can all paraphrase the question in article 51 for ourselves: “Surely I don’t think the entire world exists exclusively for me?” The ice cream cone story of Article 84 drives home the meaning of what we share. Our accomplishment in life is not materials we possess; it is the value we have in the lives of others. The great performer is cherished because of the gift to the audience.

Leap with me

For this section, I give you the conclusion first: natural resources are not private property. It fits the proverbial saying that we do not inherit the world from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.

I’m rushing you! Take a moment to reflect that no person, enterprise, or government can own what the earth provides for all its inhabitants. Stretched to the logical limit, that includes the land itself. Humans rank above animals in the fact that they can share deliberately. A person born in the desert is not limited to eating sand. Intelligent humans control material substances; we are not controlled by them.

Consider the destruction of permafrost in northern Canada and Alaska. Towns are already sinking into the water because the ground under them is melting and collapsing. It is self-evident to thinking humans that the inhabitants of those towns should not die because of where their houses no longer stand. Since we can’t move the ground, we move the people.

You may find it trivial that when the ground under you sinks, you walk away. In modern society, however, we cannot take that for granted. Where do you walk? Will other humans give way so that you can join them? History provides examples where that was not done. In the Irish potato famine, politicians argued that the people should not be rescued because if they were given free food they would never work again; they should therefore endure what nature imposed on them.

I do not know the Irish details. I assume help was forthcoming, assuring present Ireland’s existence. Let me change to another example where the victims are not innocent—the ground did not melt under them and they did not suffer undeserved crop failures. In a town at the bottom of a ravine in the Philippines, residents cut trees growing on the slopes and used them for firewood. That seemed necessary for immediate survival in winter. When the trees had been gone about twenty years, their roots no longer held the soil and a resulting landslide buried the town with many of its inhabitants. Did the world owe rescue to the survivors? After all, they had cut the trees that were protecting them.

Parsing the elements

Now we have established the complexity of the issues. We have a world that contains everything our species needs for survival. The humanist might say that is how we evolved. The religionist might say that is how God intended it. Either way we are starting with sufficiency. The problem we face is one of distribution.

I use previous articles to remove any possible retreat to selfishness. I have tried to make it impossible to say, “You lived in a dangerous place (of your own choice or not), so now that it is gone, you must die.” Can I safely assume that no reader here is taking that unfeeling position?

I want to draw out these elements: (a) there is macro sufficiency for the human species and (b) our human family accepts macro responsibility for distributing the sufficiency. Of course, humans must control population (practice contraception) to maintain the sufficiency stated in (a). On that promise, we can proceed to assigning responsibility.

Harshness

To most human beings, sharing is obvious in these instances. However, there is sadly a mindset that insists on the pound of flesh. There are some hearts of stone.

Let’s take some examples and examine how close we have ever come to uncharitable attitudes:

  • You cut the trees. You brought the disaster on yourself.
  • By smoking, you made yourself sick. You don’t deserve to come into my hospital.
  • You accepted the high wages of a coal miner. You chose your early death.
  • Bloom where God planted you. It’s not my fault your crops failed.
  • Your location is overfished. That’s not my problem.
  • If your parents had had fewer children, you wouldn’t be poor.

I purposely leave it debatable whether the above petitioners deserved or contributed to their own difficulties. The common factor in their situations is that they currently do not have power to overcome their problems by themselves.

I referred to “natural resources” to include aspects that are not under human control. Two generations ago the puzzle was why somebody whose land happened to sit on an oil field should suddenly be counted wealthy. My other examples are also focused on individual circumstances or “possessions.” I am eager to expand that to the national level. No country can rightfully own nature. If it tries, and the rest of the world feels a desperate need for a rare element, for example, that sows the seeds of war. American wars over oil amply demonstrate the folly of claiming ownership of natural resources.

I expand that principle to the rich American forests. When our country exports logs, it is exporting the jobs of those who would have turned those logs into pianos. In fact, some of the logs do return in foreign-made pianos. In this example, the Americans are sharing. A negative example is Brazilian forests. Selfish interests burn them for short-sighted gains while the rest of the world gasps for breath and clamors for the desperately needed air-cleaning property of the trees. Similarly, in the past, natural gas was vented from oil wells and burned off as a waste product. In the distant past, buffalo were hunted for their organs that brought a high price in the market while the major parts of the carcasses were left to rot. Native Americans were deprived of exercising their traditional culture of living in balance with animals on which they depended. There are numerous examples of mismanagement and abuses of nature by selfish usurpers.

Concrete proposals

Perhaps the happy ending note waits for another article; let’s preview here. Next to the abundant evil, there also exists abundant collaboration on all the above issues. May the doers of the good deeds take encouragement from my recognition.

Now among us in this blog, I will at least point out a direction. I crafted the blending of self and others so that in situations like those addressed today, I could ask us not to set ourselves above other people. Let us not separate ourselves out as the innocent few whose presence will make everything bearable. Let us rather expand our influence to redirect the energy of coming generations. Refer to the example of controlling a waterfall: instead of stopping the water halfway down, divert the water before it reaches the edge. The win-win is to channel the water to where it will be beneficial.

The way I have stacked the deck, it is obvious that the fitting solution is unselfishness. That isn’t enough. How can you spread your unselfishness? If you join me in being vegetarian (to reduce some of the evils of factory farming and resource mismanagement), that is a small improvement. Will that example change the whole culture?

Keep in mind that virtue is not imposed by government. Stewardship is not a matter of enforcing rigid regulations. Laws do help us coordinate united efforts, but they depend on the will of the people to achieve good results. If we attack people whose approaches differ from ours, we delay progress by introducing animosity and resistance. I do not advocate “talking at” people. We need better methods to appeal to them. We collect our channel diggers with love.

Articles 46, 59, and 76 use the phrase “grab the flag” to encourage private action by those with the vision to do something constructive. Articles 56 and 80 emphasize that improvement begins inside the self—not that you spend all your time improving yourself, but that you find in you the strength that is contagious. As we blend our “selves,” this process snowballs—we succeed with the desired teamwork. Let’s clean up the messes together!

Photo by Vista Wei on Unsplash

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PS: This online blog is extremely slow to open cross references. The school includes a comprehensive textbook where this navigation is essentially instant—especially if you read it on your own computer.