Our country was founded on the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Selfishness and narcissism were not really in the mix. The founders were willing to sacrifice their lives in their quest for freedom from tyranny. Sure, they were fighting for themselves but they also understood that liberty meant liberty for all, at least as they understood “all” at the time. With hindsight we know that large groups—women, African Americans, Native Americans—were excluded. But they understood that liberty is never just about the self. It is always a collective enterprise.
In our search for privilege and entitlement we seem to have lost sight of the essentially communal nature of liberty. It can never be achieved when love of self transcends our ability to notice another’s point of view. It is important that we break free from rigid conformity and punishing guilt but we must also realize that nonconformity and aimless irresponsibility do not constitute liberty nor do they put us on the path to happiness.
I suggested last week that we may be moving toward a higher level of consciousness as a people. I realize that that doesn’t seem to ring true in the context of the current political climate but I am optimistic in the belief that the larger part of humanity may be moving toward a more elevated plane of civilization. I am thinking that in order to do that we have to “throw off the shackles of yesterday” and pass through a phase of unfettered selfishness. But the next stage in our journey and certainly the most challenging of all demands that we actualize our passions, inventions or our talents in the context of our fellow human beings.
The recent issue of TIME (October 31, 2016) recounts the accomplishments of some influential teens who manage to excel in extraordinary ways while remaining aware of their effect on others and their responsibility to the planet. Laurie Hernandez gained fame in the Rio Olympics through extreme dedication to her sport but she also understands that she serves as a role model for Latina youth. She says, “It helps me realize that I have done something bigger than just gymnastics.” (p.22) She realizes that she is a role model for achieving difficult goals no matter what one’s race or ethnicity.
Another outstanding teen is Kiara Nirghin, also 16, who wanted to solve the problem of keeping crops alive during a drought. She lives in South Africa where last year it rained only 66% of their average rainfall. She wanted to create a superabsorbent polymer (SAP) that could be sprinkled over the crops but she wanted to do it in an eco-friendly way. She designed a product made from orange and avocado peelings that could be turned into an SAP by exposing it to ultraviolet light and heat. She is confident that it can be used in a variety of settings.
These young people give us hope. They are showing us that it is possible to set personal goals and even achieve fame while they also pursue goals that benefit everyone. As parents it isn’t that hard to teach these values to our children. Children exhibit altruism at very young ages. They want to help others. They are distressed when others are sad. We can nurture this quality by praising it when it happens, by showing it ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we yell at a three-year-old who won’t share her toys. But by being aware of developmental levels and formulating expectations accordingly we can encourage this vital thread of concern and responsibility for others. We can grow a generation of young people like Laurie and Kiara whose achievements bloom along a pathway that can lead to happiness for all.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.