The reason I march goes back to a day many decades ago, when I was thirteen or fourteen: my mother told me I was a very selfish person. Shocking, perhaps, to think that a teenage boy could be selfish, but let’s assume it was the case. Actually, it’s a very safe assumption, given who I am today. Oh yes, I was quite likely selfish back then, but I’m much more so now. Perhaps infinitely more.
So, let your imagination go—who do you picture when you think of a very, very, very selfish person? A Nazi skinhead? A serial killer? A reality show contestant?
Yeah, if I were any of those, this would make for quite an interesting read, but sadly for you none are the case (Survivor won’t return my calls, letters, emails, texts, telegrams, or hammering on the door). Not only am I extremely selfish, I tend to spend my time with people who are selfish like me. We have regular meetings (no, not the 12-step kind), events, and even picnics where we wear matching t-shirts. You may not know it, but some of your neighbors might be as selfish as we are; it’s easy to pick them out once you know the signs.
Is this all confusing? Let’s see if I can make this clearer, by asking this question: what is selfishness? Typically, we think of it as an overdeveloped concern for oneself, no? Looking out for #1, on steroids. Solipsism on a grand scale. All Things Considered—as it affects moi. Everyone is somewhere on this scale of Mother Teresa to Edi Amin, so if we’re to judge how selfish someone is, we need a way to measure it.
How about this standard: how many people does the person care about? You may think that the fewer number of people our candidate cares about, the more selfish they are. I propose that while that may be the commonly held concept, it’s a simplistic take on selfishness. I say that because the person we commonly think of as selfish actually cares about more people than we think they do—and more than they think they do. This is the differentiator, I submit. When I was a teenager, I cared almost exclusively about myself. That is beginner’s level selfishness; what I didn’t realize is that truly caring about myself and my wellbeing requires a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of what it is to be truly selfish.
So yes, I care about myself. In no particular order, I want to be loved, happy, entertained, adequately fed, housed, medically and dentally cared for, clothed, warm, and relatively clean. Consider then that if I’m to be fed I must extend my sphere of concern to the people who work in neighborhood grocery store. Next, I must be concerned about the truck drivers who bring the food to the store. And how about the farmers who grow the food I’m so attached to? The people at Netflix who deliver my entertainment? My doctor and dentist, who see to my comfort, the people at Levi’s who make my pants (I’m retired), the people who keep the electricity coming to my house.
Whew. It’s a really big thing, the size of my sphere of concern—and it’s all about me. I want all these people to be okay so I’ll be okay. But I’m only getting started: I want to be able to go out into the wild and see flora and fauna (I’m partial to both). I want to see whales leap out of the ocean, see a school of dolphins swim by, watch jellyfish bob among coral shoals. I want to see hawks and hummingbirds and songbirds and eagles do their thing. I want to watch documentaries of flourishing African wildlife, South American wildlife, North American wildlife. I want to see blue skies and taste clean air; I want to see Venice someday, and not from a submersible. I want to know that our beaches in San Diego will be there anytime I go out. Actually, I want more than that: I want beaches everywhere to be there—just on the off chance I decide to go visit.
I don’t want any more species to go extinct on our behalf, and not just for me, because my sphere of selfishness concern extends beyond me: I want many, many, many generations to know the world I’ve known, because it would make me happy thinking that was the case. Again, all about me. I want our knowledge of the world to rise to the limits of our abilities, for us to continue to be the universe looking back on itself in wonder, and through us, to know itself. I want all this, and even more, but I can’t go on forever.
The point is, I am a very, very, very selfish person. That’s why I march for the protection of our environment. I selfishly want our world to continue being all that it has been for me. No, that’s not enough: I want it to be a better world, one with justice for all, because I like thinking how that would be too. And for the sake of those who will come after me, I never want it to end; I can’t bear the thought of this wonderful world I love destroyed. Call me selfish.
I really won’t mind.