I believe in the indivisibility of self-interest. The early path to this belief is unlikely. My first answer for “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was, “I want to be a millionaire.” Strangely, I also wanted to “live off the land.” This was the mid-seventies. I guess I thought I could save money that way. But in eighth grade I read Living the Good Life, the story of a couple practicing subsistence farming. It also had a critique of society’s economic arrangements. Over time I lost interest in subsistence farming, but the critique of our economic system really stuck. Soon after reading the book, I remember crying in bed one night as I realized wanting only to be a millionaire was so empty.
One of childhood’s many heartbreaks. I got over it. What I didn’t get over was my interest in how our seemingly unsustainable society continues to function. During college, I volunteered for six months at a church-run social service agency in Biloxi, Mississippi. I came from the upper-middle class and one of the whitest states in the nation. I learned a lot about racism and the huge divide between classes. I later earned an undergraduate degree in Social Work with a focus on Community Organizing. But I decided to pursue a graduate degree in clinical social work. I was still interested in work for social change, but I went with psychotherapy as a profession because, after a time, working directly on social change as a career seemed impossible for me. After practicing clinical social work for 15 years, I am once again interested in social change work. I’m also more able to believe that I might have an impact.
As I look at our seemingly unsustainable global society, I see what allows us to survive is the increasing awareness of the indivisibility of self-interest. Sometimes this awareness comes in an instant, as when you reach for the hand of a falling stranger, without regard for your own safety; most of the time it comes more slowly. But when the awareness does come, it allows us to see our self interest intimately entwined with that of everyone else. Ironically, the wealthy among us are often caught in a feeling of scarcity: If someone else has more, I will have less. “The poor will always be with us.” I believe poverty is not a result of scarcity; it’s abundance, poorly distributed. When we decide to eliminate extreme poverty in the world — and it won’t cost that much — I believe we will all benefit. Our security will improve as there will be less economic fuel for terrorism, and threats to our health will diminish as there will be less fertile ground for new disease. Once most of us around the world are engaged in productive work, companies will no longer be able to demand lower wages with the threat of moving elsewhere, and income will gradually become more equitably distributed. That is, abundance, well distributed.
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