Matt’s team of teachers was tired by the time it came to plan the April vacation camp program. Matt knew it would be hard to find volunteers—everyone needed the vacation, themselves. Nonetheless, he put “Staffing for Vacation Camp” on the agenda for their weekly meeting. When this item came up on the agenda, Matt said: “So, is there anyone who wants to work this vacation?”
Matt’s question was greeted by a 10-second eternity of silence. Then Melissa spoke up: “I’ll do Monday.”
Then Mike said: “I’ll do Tuesday,” and in the next minute all the slots were filled.
With a smile on his face and gratitude in his voice Matt said: “What a different kind of union we have created. Thank you.”
When is self-sacrifice self-fulfillment? When Self makes that decision.
A leader gets that kind of decision when he or she has created a team, a community, a band of brothers and sisters. Serving others is the only way to serve self—contrary to common American individualistic culture. Serving self at the expense of others leaves the most critical piece of self in limbo (or worse). When everybody is “looking out for number one,” everyone experiences the deficit.
However, our language distracts us from the truth. We talk as if we are “torn between self and other” as between “bad and good.” Being “altruistic” is “morally responsible,” but not necessarily in our own self-interest. Whether to do good to others or to do for yourself is understood as a moral dilemma. This is evidence of a cultural flaw rather than “the way people are.”
The choice is not a dilemma—there is only one self-serving choice. Doing things for others (even to the point of self-sacrifice) inherently fulfills self. In our heads we have two brains. A left-brain that says: “I am myself, distinct, unique, independent,” and a right brain that says: “I am my relationships.” Fulfillment, happiness, success (etc.) is about integrating these two brains, and results in the discovery that, indeed, I am my relationships.
The confusion in our language stems from the duality in our religious traditions. Competition between our good selves and our bad selves is a dysfunctional cultural construction, not the way humans are naturally designed. This is why war heroes consistently report that their act of self-sacrifice was nothing special—it was just them being themselves. The Rotarian slogan “service over self?” has it slightly wrong. Service is self.
Given half a chance, children show that altruism is the natural tendency. Want to get a 3-year-old eating out of the palm of your hand? Show him how he can help you. Want to see a happy group of energetic third graders? Ask them to set up the chairs for you in the multi-purpose room. Want those “self-centered” middle-schoolers to behave responsibly? Give them the job of taking care of or teaching or just being with younger children. “Being yourself” is necessary, but insufficient. Self has to make a difference.
We create our own hell when we act as if children are selfish or act as if our neighbors are not a part of our community. We create a heaven when decide to act as if making a difference to others is what makes everybody somebody.