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Me First and the Loss of Compassion

America stands at a crossroads today. Terrorism and nuclear proliferation, immigration, climate change or the growing gap between rich and poor reveal policy priorities that increasingly segregate society. Americans have been taking their divisions to the streets. Voicing opinion as part of the political process or outside of it are signs of a healthy democracy. However, more and more, political parties and interest groups promote their goals with the sole purpose of winning without any real interest in compromise, let alone collaboration. As we are losing interest in and eventually the ability to compromise, we are losing the very essence of our democracy.

Blaming the president or illegal immigrants is far too easy. The reasons for the renewed and increasing divisions of American society are rooted much deeper than political slogans or religious or moral prescriptions. Instead, many of the tensions that shape American society today likely stem from a combination of long-held myths about American exceptionalism and the rise of individualism at the expense of community.

We tell our children early on that they can be anything they want to be. We aim for them to be special and we prove it with our bumper stickers. We hire tutors so they can be first among the best. This is all good, of course, if that drive comes from the child, but not so much when it is the parent pushing an unhappy child.

If that is our approach, instead of providing opportunity for creative free play with others, we already force our preschoolers to sit still for hours, so they can be ahead of everybody else even before they enter first grade.

Sliding further down the slippery slope toward elitism, we’ve been bribing coaches so our children receive athletic scholarships for sports they don’t even play.

As a college instructor, I see the results in my classrooms. Many students do not know what they want to do after graduation and some don’t even know why they are in college. Many are disconnected, frustrated, alienated. Many have a closer relationship with their smart device than they do with their classmates. All know, however, they have to get good grades to succeed. As a result, many take “easy” classes to boost their GPA. One of the most frequent questions students ask me is what will be on the exam and whether there is a study guide.

But, in college, shouldn’t classes be challenging, preparing graduates for success in life without a study sheet? Should we not empower our students to think creatively, critically, compassionately and for themselves?

The way we have been socializing our children for decades, trying to make them better, smarter, faster than others they compete against has resulted in a “me first” attitude that has lost consideration and compassion for others.

One of the crucial lessons we often fail to impart to our children is that life is not a zero-sum game; that is, the success of another child is not a corresponding failure for me. Children ought to learn how to help one another so they can take joy in crossing the finish line together, building closeness instead of separation, segregation and adversarialism.

And the incessant use of digital media often exacerbates this development.

In a society where we are rewarded for thinking about ourselves first, we disconnect from one another. Just go to the mall and look for shopping carts and trash strewn across the parking lot, oversized trucks and SUVs parked across multiple parking spots, non-handicap vehicles in handicap spots and cars parked in dedicated motorcycle spaces. No consideration for others.

Gone are the days of compassionate conservatism. “America first” finds a ready breeding ground in this “me first” mentality. It is finally time to catch up for those left behind by social progress made in the name of equality. After all, they too are better than others, better than those abroad and better than those from abroad. The new aMEricaFIRST echoes that sentiment, segregates American society and separates us from friends and allies around the world.

How can we get our compassion back? How can we reconnect with each other and engage with the world? At the personal level, take small steps and start a conversation with someone different from you, expose yourself to the diversity that makes this country so unique–and involve your children in that exposure to pluralism, normalizing it, modeling it. Put yourself in the shoes of someone less fortunate and find the “things that unite.”

At the social level, we – including our children – must recognize that the rights and freedoms we cherish and enjoy also come with responsibilities. Success in America has focused on maximizing individual freedoms limited only when their exercise encroaches on the freedoms of others. Today, we need to reconnect and rebuild our communities by focusing on the needs of others. To achieve this, let’s reconsider the idea of mandatory public service: citizens serving others in need. A public service requirement between the end of high school and the beginning of college – fulfilled in many ways, including such service opportunities as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, Meals on Wheels or other freely helpful initiatives – brings those in service in contact with those from whom they have been disconnected, both at home and abroad. Only through connection will we regain compassion and only then will we be able to make America great again.

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Dr. Volker Franke is a Professor of Conflict Management at Kennesaw State University and the Founder and CEO of TRENDS Global, a metro-Atlanta based non-profit organization dedicated to community empowerment and public service.

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