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Jewish World Review /Feb. 12, 1999 /26 Shevat, 5759

Dr. Laura

Dr. Laura Overcoming selfishness leads us closer to human potential

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) SUZANNE, A RECENT CALLER TO MY RADIO PROGRAM, was struggling. It seems her husband of seven years had a daughter when he was a teen-ager. Because of a horrible relationship with the mother, he is virtually a stranger to his own child. The girl's mother, who led a bad life of drugs and multiple relationships, discarded her daughter at an aunt's home. Now the aunt wants to live her own life and has tossed the girl out. This young woman has asked her "father" if she can come and live with him until she gets a foothold in life.

Suzanne is struggling with issues of her own infertility, "sibling" jealousy, resentment about giving up her privacy and anger about the change. She doesn't want the girl there and rationalized it by saying, "She is 18. She should be on her own. All my friends agree with me."

I didn't. I said she was obligated to the stranger (her husband's daughter) in spite of her desire for primacy in her husband's life and heart. Taking her in was the right thing to do. Suzanne did agree with me that there is more selfishness these days than there was 40 years ago, because values are less G-d-centered, more self-centered.

Selfishness is natural to the human condition -- in fact to all of nature. Regard for one's own welfare, advantage and best interests, in competition with others, is part of our survival instinct. Survival requires that you and yours have the resources you need to sustain yourselves. Any concern for other than yourself and your kin is rational only if that "other" can benefit you. In other words, kindness is meaningful only when it is directed toward those who, in some way, can support your survival or enhance your pleasure.

Defying selfishness is a stretch and a strain. It means you have to imagine that others are as important as you are. On what basis could strangers be seen as important as "me and mine"? When you hear of some tragedy far from your turf, do you react with the same horror as you would if it happened in your neighborhood or your street? No, you don't.

Don't you react more emotionally to news of a plane crash when the victims are citizens of your own country, state, city or ZIP code? It seems that the natural tendency is to empathize more with those who are a close fit. The more identification we have, the more emotion and caring we show.

Yet, our Declaration of Independence states that human beings are created equal and that these equal beings have certain unalienable rights. The source of both the beings and the rights is "the Creator." Throughout history with its plethora of G-ds, the claim that "my G-d is bigger and badder than yours" was a measure of importance and entitlement. With the acknowledgment of one G-d, "the Creator," we fragmented tribes became one people.

But an idea, even one as powerful as monotheism, does not have the power to dictate emotions, reactions and behavior. We humans vacillate moment by moment between being complex organisms fighting for food, space, mates, dominance and pleasure, and exercising the potential we have for mimicking the divine and tempering these instincts with compassion, altruism, sacrifice and love of justice. However, intelligence (one of our many blessings) can be readily, even blindly, used to rationalize unjust behavior as "right" or "necessary." This, of course, makes morality seem intangible.

Interestingly, a current Roper Survey of more than 3,000 students between the ages of 12 and 19 asked them to identify the country's top societal woes from a list of 15. The top choice, by 56 percent of the students, was "selfishness." A third of those polled ranked "lack of morality/ethics" seventh. Yet, only a standard of morality and ethics motivates people to be less selfish, absent other compensation.

Consider the difference between the attitude of "What's in it for me?" and "I'm compelled to do this because G-d, the ultimate authority, said it's right." The former is selfish; the latter is morally superior. The former looks for selfish gain; the latter recognizes a higher satisfaction.

In our quest for material gain and ego gratification, we have forsaken the gains of the soul. These gains require us to accept that others are as important as we are. When we do this, we evolve beyond our innate animal selves and become truly human.


02/09/99:Youth's difficult lessons make us better adults
02/02/99:Rituals, icons remind us of our obligation to G-d
01/22/99: 'Consenting adults' don't always examine consequences
01/18/99: Day care no substitute for love of mom and dad
01/08/99: Don't use others' misfortunes to build your self-image
12/31/98: Tracking HIV-infected people makes good sense
12/24/98: How can we teach ethics without defining morals?
12/18/98: Parents afraid of firm values leave their children adrift
12/11/98: Spread righteousness by refusing to accept the 'code'

©1998,Universal Press Syndicate