As a high school English teacher, I have my students write essays on controversial topics to teach persuasive argument.  It has come to my attention throughout discussions regarding various issues on which they are writing, that many of the next generation of voters are startlingly selfish, uncaring, and downright hostile to the idea of helping others. Of course, it is not true of all of them, but many of them express this hostility openly, and it scares me. Is this a result of the current political climate, in light of such hot-button topics as the Affordable Health Care Act, the increasing deficit, or the bleak outlook of the economic situation in America? Are they simply regurgitating frustrations voiced by discouraged and over-stressed parents?

Apparently, these students do not believe in helping the poor, the elderly, or the disadvantaged in any way. This lack of compassion made me curious as to the cause. It seems to come down to a misguided sense of fair-play.  Kids, in my experience, seem to be concerned with fairness and justice; however, their ideas of fairness too often only include what is fair for them, not others, and only if the fair treatment is in their favor. In other words, they are not interested in getting what they deserve unless it is good.

Increasingly, I’ve seen a general attitude in America that has gone from the Individualism, which has always been a trademark of our society, to a worldview that states, “What’s mine is mine, no one deserves to share in anything that I have earned, regardless of help I have received to obtain it, and if you are poor, you deserve it because you are not ambitious enough to get what you need for yourself.” Oddly enough, most of these same students receive cars, smart phones, iPads, expensive wardrobes, and countless other luxuries from their parents without accepting any responsibilities, such as turning in homework, keeping a decent G.P.A., or treating others with respect. I have noticed that the students who work for their own things and receive less help from their parents have a similar disdain for anyone who needs help, as they see themselves as being able to provide for themselves already.

Discussion after discussion of these issues has led me to believe that it all comes down to a worldview of selfishness. These students believe that 1) the primary purpose for living and the highest good is to be happy, 2) they have no responsibility to anyone other than themselves or their families, and 3) the dignity, quality of life, or happiness of others is irrelevant to them. This shockingly cold and compassionless trend is quite disturbing to me. Call me crazy, but I think we are responsible for each other, and as unpopular as it may be to say, nobody makes it on their own. Sure, people vary in ability and ambition, and the choices we make, and the fortitude with which we approach the challenges in life, make a decisive impact on the outcomes we achieve, but we still had some help or advantage, which we owe to others along the way.

I do understand the sentiment of most Americans who think that things should be fair, and that there is something inherently right about those who work the hardest enjoying the results of that labor. However, this basic notion of justice has taken on an insidious life of its own that now resembles something more akin to radical Ayn Rand Individualism. When did Americans get so hateful? When did all human compassion disappear into extreme selfishness that is actually heralded as being patriotically American? I was raised to believe that we were a compassionate, humanitarian nation, who stood up for the underdog and welcomed the downtrodden and abused into a better life. Everywhere people are accusing others of expecting entitlements, yet they expect their own entitlements. Are we not entitled to certain basic things just by virtue of being born? We absolutely treat our children as if they are.

I believe all people are entitled to dignity, food, shelter, kindness, compassion, and medical treatment simply because they were born. They should be required to work in return for these things unless they are incapable. If they cannot, then they should be helped to learn how to acquire these basic necessities for themselves. If we can, we are responsible for helping them. At the very least, we are responsible for making sure there is a fair and reasonable path to these necessities. Why? Because they are our brothers and sisters, because they are God’s creation, because it is inhumane not to, because helping them is the best thing we can do for ourselves, our children, our country, the people we help, and for God.

Let me interrupt myself to attempt to dispel a myth. I believe America is the “Land of Opportunity,” but not equal opportunity. Anyone who believes that everyone has the same shot at success as anyone else, probably hasn’t looked at the situation of inner city kids. Do they have the same opportunity to attend a good college when their neighborhood school can’t keep a qualified teacher for more than a few months? When their K-12 education doesn’t even remotely resemble that of even the public school in the more affluent neighborhoods? Sure, there are scholarships and grants available, but will they qualify if this is where they got their education? Even if they were able to go, would they have the academic, social, and professional skills necessary to succeed? Of course, there are always the rare exceptions who manage to defeat the odds, not despite them, but because of the tenacity being underprivileged inspired in them. Unfortunately, this is not the norm. I’m tired of an America that worships the successful corporate executive, who inherited a business or the money to start it, had his parents pay for his Harvard education, which he was only allowed to attend because his grandfather paid for the new wing, treats his employees like commodities, puts profit above all else, moves his company to China to make even more billions of dollars, not because his business is failing, but because it is never enough. But we blame taxes for de-incentivizing him to hire Americans. No, I’m sorry; he’s just greedy. The love of money is supposed to be the root of all evil, but in America, it is cause for hero-worship and emulation.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s fair that I have to go to work all day when I’d rather be doing something else, while someone else refuses to work and lives off of the system. Call me idealistic or naïve, but I don’t think it’s that simple. I think almost everyone would rather take care of themselves and have a sense of pride in their accomplishments if they had the skills they needed to do it. These might be technical, academic, social, emotional, medical, or psychological skills that they lack.

“Teach a man to fish,” they say, “and he will eat forever.” But do we teach him to fish? Or do we just tell him to go fish? This past week I was listening to a Christian radio talk show, and a representative of the Denver Rescue Mission was being interviewed. I didn’t catch his name, but in this interview, one of the employees, a former refugee from the Congo, described how he now heads up the branch of the mission that mentors refugees and helps them to get established in their new country. He explained that when political or religious refugees come to this country, they are given a small amount of money and pretty much are on their own to figure out what to do. They often do not speak English, do not understand our business system, housing system, they may not know how to get a bank account, fill out an application, or anything that they need to do to survive. When one of these refugees comes into the mission, they get a mentor to show them how things work in America, help them to learn English, and they provide them with long-term help in getting established here.  Don’t they deserve this basic help just on the merit of being a fellow human being in need? Many people think not.

Another service the Denver Rescue Mission provides is for people who are trapped in the “cycle of poverty.” They have one to two year programs where a person can focus on working on self-improvement without having to worry about paying rent or buying food. They are able to train for jobs, work on emotional issues, or whatever is keeping them trapped in poverty, so that when they are done with the program, they can be self-sufficient. It’s charities like this one, and other para-church organizations and secular charities who make a real difference in people’s lives and in our communities.

What scares me is that this trend among the youth toward self-absorption and disdain for helping others signifies a bleak future for this type of humanitarianism. Additionally, what kind of harsh and unkind world will we be living in if we allow this trend to continue? We can and should give what we can to these types of organizations, but perhaps the most important thing we can do for others is to teach our children to care about their fellow man again. Teach empathy, compassion, and kindness, and put less emphasis on getting a good paying job and a stock portfolio. Let them know that choosing a profession that helps people and makes the world a kinder place is even more admirable and worthy of praise than a six-figure income and five thousand square foot house. Teach them that if the world is going to be a place worth living in, then we must be our brother’s keeper. –Christina Knowles

“The Denver Rescue Mission is the oldest, full-service Christian charity in the Rocky Mountain region. Thriving today as non-denominational organization; no one is denied services because of gender, race, color, creed, national origin, religion, age, handicap, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, or marital, parental or military status.”

How can you help? Visit The Denver Rescue Mission online: http://www.denverrescuemission.org

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