Putting Ourselves First?

So there I was, standing on the express line at the supermarket, scanning the magazine racks. Who can resist scanning the checkout line magazine racks? The headlines are either laughable, cringe-worthy, or both.

The one that caught my eye today made me cringe. No, I didn’t read the article inside, but far fewer of us shoppers buy the magazine than read the headlines. This one, alongside a gorgeous shot of gorgeous Michelle Obama in a gorgeous gown, said something like, “Michelle Obama: Why you should put yourself first.”

Some psychologist should do a study on which headlines grab us, and why. This one got to me because it struck me as exactly NOT the sort of thing we want to hear the First Lady say at a time of economic upheaval, joblessness, social divisions….  The list of this nation’s maladies is endless. Wouldn’t it be nice to read an inspirational line like, “Michelle Obama: Together we can get through this” or even catchier, “Michelle Obama: United we stand.”

It’s true that this is the First Lady of a country that prints “Out of many, one” on its currency, underscoring the fact that we’ve always played favorites rather than pull together with the rest of the world. But can’t Americans, at least, at last, come to understand that it’s not about dying with the most toys anymore, that the game has changed forever? Globalization, climate change and the Internet are just a few of the myriad phenomena that have us interconnected on a local, national and international level that was unimaginable 50 years ago. The most recent downturn taught us just exactly how connected Wall Street is to Main Street, if we ever doubted it. In fact, wasn’t it those “me first” types that got us into this pickle in the first place?  

Okay, so Michelle was probably referring more to the old airbag metaphor, that is, you can’t help someone else get through the loss of oxygen on a plane if you can’t breathe yourself. Similarly, we can’t take care of our jobs, our loved ones and the dry cleaning if we’re not in the best of shape. I get it. But it still doesn’t sit well. We are already such an individualistic society that this magazine headline seems like a missed opportunity for Mrs. Obama to advocate for communitarianism. Not communism, mind you. Just not always, always, forever looking out for number one first.

I vote for a different story, one I heard Bill Clinton advocate years ago. Forget, he said, if not in so many words, the E Pluribus Unum mentality. We can no longer afford to pit nation against nation in a zero sum game. We are all interconnected, Belarus with Bahrain, Zaghreb with Zaire, and if we don’t accept that fact and act on it, we are lost.

About 30 years ago, former treasury secretary Robert Reich published a book called Tales of a New America, in which he wrote about the four foundational stories of American society. He labeled them (1) The Rot at the Top, (2) The Enemy at the Gates, (3) The Triumphant Individual, and (4) The Benevolent Community.

I propose a fifth: We Are the World. In the meantime, I’ll go read that article. I hope I am wrong, but something tells me I’m not.

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  • Michael Stock  On September 22, 2011 at 8:42 am

    Great post Caren. There is something happening here but those headlines, and all negative thinking, takes us in the wrong direction.

    • Caren Neile  On October 3, 2011 at 3:40 pm

      Thanks! Would be so wonderful if we all paid a little more attention to what we said and wrote, wouldn’t it?

  • irenesavarese  On September 26, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Perhaps she meant: “Focus on yourself first – instead of focusing on what others should do to change/improve etc” Just hoping!

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