By SAM DICHIARA
Martin Luther King Jr. Day got me thinking about a favorite quote from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” To Dr. King’s point, maybe there’s really no such thing as selfishness or selflessness. This is because if you degrade or exploit someone else, you necessarily degrade or exploit yourself. Your life is less rich, less full and less beautiful than it could be for every person you could have lifted up and turned into a friend, ally and supporter, but instead chose to use, demean and diminish. For this reason, there is no such thing as selfishness because there is no such thing as truly benefiting from contributing to the suffering of another person.
Any money, opportunity or advantage obtained by screwing someone else over comes at the price of the only two things that can actually make a life good and a person happy: strong, healthy relationships with others and ourselves, and the chance to work on work worth doing. A selfish decision is not one that helps you and hurts someone else. It’s one that you think will help you, but actually just hurts you and everyone else, too.
To wake up in the morning is to have one more profound opportunity to do more than get even with those who hurt us or only act with integrity when others do. That’s a waste of the one short life we have to live. There’s more fulfilling work to be done on a more interesting project to leave this world better than we found it.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Far and away the greatest prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” The work most worth doing today, right now, as the world descends further every day into craziness, cruelty and chaos, is to do more than what’s fair and give more than what you owe.
There is no such thing as selflessness because making each other happy makes us happy and our lives get better when we help each other’s lives get better. As Charlie Chaplin said, “We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness — not by each other’s misery.”
That’s why Herodotus was right in saying that “the only good is knowledge, and the only evil is ignorance.” We do evil things because we’ve been tricked into believing we can escape the “inescapable network of mutuality” Dr. King described. Knowledge of the fact that we all depend on each other only causes us to do good, and ignorance of that fact only causes us to do evil. Living a life of honor and integrity is not just the right thing to do — it’s the wise thing to do. Stephen Levine said, “Love is the only rational act.” The work most worth doing is to disrupt the pattern of people making each other’s lives harder, and to become in our words and actions walking demonstrations that we can all be happier than this, that life can be better than this if we learn to treat each other better than this, and that love is the only truly revolutionary idea ever conceived.