I believe there is a dark side to freedom. The dark side of freedom is having the choice to act in one’s own interests at the expense of others. I also believe this is a necessary evil; only Orwell’s thought police could control personal intentions… And wouldn’t such control of the dark side inevitably limit the brighter side of freedom?
I was in an auto accident a few weeks ago. The driver of the other car was making a left turn, and neglected to check oncoming traffic. He turned directly into my path, and I ran into the right side of his car. As we approached each other, my first reaction was to be angry; “I guess you didn’t make it” I said sarcastically. But I was impressed by the fact that his first concern was for whether anyone was hurt. “Are you OK?…” he said. That disarmed me. “Yeah, I’m all right”. My girlfriend, who had been riding in my passenger seat, pointed out to him that “we had the green”. “I know” he said. Later, he claimed to the insurance companies that the light was yellow, and we were trying to beat the change to red.
It seems clear to me now that his initial concern was not for our well being, but his. Given that he had caused the accident, he was afraid he would have to take responsibility for our injuries.
I wonder – is the most fundamental priviledge in a free nation to act purely in one’s own self interest? Is that what the founding fathers meant by the pursuit of happiness? After all, I can imagine the other driver thinking – “I’ve got nothing to lose, I might as well see if I can avoid an increase in my insurance rates”. This kind of attitude does seem seem to be acceptable in our society today. It’s a “collective selfishness” that brings about the opposite of freedom – a prison. What freedom is there in remaining constantly vigilant for the next self-serving person – be it a neighbor, salesperson, politician, corporate CEO or corporate lobbyist – who wants to take advantage of an individual or public trust?
I believe we have a public responsibility to develop trust in ourselves. That means not lying to ourselves, and in so doing, not lying to others. And I believe self trust will best develop in a climate of shared responsibility, where it is understood that everybody makes mistakes; where someone admitting a mistake is not weak, but strong. That way, people could act in the genuine self interest of being true to themselves. They’d know that admitting a mistake in most instances was a responsibility that free people share. And yes, there would be consequences, but I believe the ability to admit small mistakes will generally avoid the big mistakes – as well as the big consequences – that come from repeatedly committing small ones.
As for my girlfriend and I, we hired a lawyer, but only after we heard that the other driver was lying. We have to protect ourselves from being unjustly found at fault. Having done so, I realize that it would be easy for me to suggest that I’ve suffered whiplash, an injury that’s difficult to disprove. I might substantially increase the settlement… What would I have to lose?….
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.