A billionaire sheik in Abu Dhabi had his name, Hamed, carved into a plot of sand in letters so large that they could be seen from space. My kids have tried that, but the waves seem to wash away part of the letters before they ever finish. My kids do not have the means to indulge their own age appropriate narcissism, but Hamed had the ego and the means. I do wonder whose attention he was trying to attract. Those few humanoids in space at that very moment are a narrow demographic to impress.
Fortunately, we all have inexpensive means to indulge our own narcissistic impulses to be seen and heard throughout the civil and uncivilized world and beyond. We have Twitter accounts to broadcast our slightest physical discomforts and our misunderstood political views. We have You Tube to televise our everyday ordinariness and our hidden comedic ‘talents’. We have blogs to pretend that we’re Hemingway, just without all the career luck he had. Carving our giant names into sand is what we would prefer, but becoming a momentary Internet sensation in our own circle of trust will have to do at least until we strike oil in the backyard.
We have reached the pinnacle of the Culture of The One. The 2006 Time magazine Person of the Year was “You”. The cover had a little mirror on it so we could see ourselves. No one else really mattered that year, and the trend has continued unabated. I worry. We have always been a country that valued “rugged individualism”, but at what point did the value of self-sacrifice that defined our ruggedness morph into the value of self-absorption that emphasizes our individual exceptionalism?
The focus on self has crowded out a meaningful focus on others. Sure, we can anonymously donate some cash to Haitian earthquake victims, or buy a rubber wristband, but try finding enough volunteers for the high school soccer team car wash. Try finding enough volunteers to join the homeowner’s board of architectural review, or even to attend the annual HOA meeting. We must be too busy creating our virtual giant letters in the sand to actually get out there and help move some real sand.
We see the celebration and reinforcement of self-absorption all around us. LeBron James, the self-proclaimed global icon, explained his basketball philosophy by saying, “It’s not about sharing, you know, its’ about everybody having their own spotlight.” Wow, the guy doesn’t want the ball during crunch time, but with that quote, he pretty much slam dunked modern America, didn’t he?
After 9/11, our President did not ask us for collective sacrifice to defeat the terrorist threat. He encouraged us to defeat the forces of evil by going “shopping”. That sentiment truly served as the bookend of an era that began with John Kennedy challenging a nation to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” 40+ years after that speech, the closing answer was simple – we can buy iPods and big screen TVs for our country.
The current election is shaping up to be a continuation of this struggle between helping others and helping ourselves. Obama ran in 2008 on “Yes We Can”, with the implicit message they we as a nation can accomplish more together than apart. Romney is gearing up for his run with a different message: “Yes You Can” that turns the spotlight directly on to the lazy rabble that needs to take a bath and start working instead of freeloading in the park. One message asks that we sublimate our needs to achieve a greater result as a nation. One message asks that you maximize your own talents individually, and the nation will benefit as a result. It’s Coach Norman Dale from Hoosiers demanding 4 passes to teammates before any shot is taken versus LeBron James hogging the spotlight and taking any shot he wants, whenever he wants. Side note: LeBron hasn’t won anything yet.
It is the political embodiment of Glenn Beck’s entreaty from his webpage in 2009 – “I feel like I need to keep saying that word so it stays in front of your and everybody’s mind – individual, individual, individual!” As amateur thinker Beck said on his TV program, “We’re not all in this together. It’s our independent spirit that has pulled us out of tougher jams than the one we’re in now.” We are stronger when we are separate, and we should not be confined by common purpose. Ignorance is Strength and Freedom is Slavery. Beck never said that part, but he could have.
As a nation, I wish we could be more like Seal Team Six (without the camouflage and the guns of course). No one knows their individual names. No one follows their individual Twitter feeds. Individual fame is sacrificed for the success of the unit. Everyone has a role, and no one has the spotlight. They toil in anonymity until the time comes to achieve as a team, and that they do. That wish is dashed now that Act of Valor is a hit box office movie this month. Even the Seals couldn’t resist a few letters in the sand. Maybe all sense of community and team is gone. Maybe that’s what the Founders wanted – a nation of individuals, and We the People was just a ruse.
The Self-Help section of the remaining local bookstores is one of the largest and contains dozens of best-sellers. It would be nice one day to find a Self-Less section just as large and just as popular. To be fully selfless these days, you have to be one rugged individual. There are fewer and fewer that are happy to toil in the shadows, but the world needs ditch diggers, too.
I wonder about the workers who carve Hamed’s name in the sand. I wonder how many wished it was their name being seen from outer space. I think I’ll tweet that, right after I attend our elementary school PTA meeting.