The needs of the many

I got thinking about Star Trek on the walk home from the bus stop yesterday. To be specific, I got thinking about a single line uttered by Spock in The Wrath of Khan. Chances are, even the non-trekkies will recognize this one (make sure your speakers are on!):

I haven’t come across many Spocks in my lifetime. That is, I haven’t come across many people who are genuinely able to set aside their own self-interest and sacrifice themselves completely for the sake of the “many.” I’m not saying that people can’t be altruistic, but I think there is a lot of pseudo-self-sacrifice–a  lot of “doing for others” that, if we really dug down deeply and honestly into our underlying motivations, we would have to admit was serving a personal need as much as, and sometimes even more than, it was helping others.

Because we want to feel that we are doing good, it’s easy to get caught up in busily doing what we think is needed, without stepping back to figure out whether the real needs are actually something quite different. I’ve seen this phenomenon in every organization I’ve belonged to. At some point in time, someone comes up with a solution to a genuine problem. The solution becomes codified into policies and procedures. And eventually it becomes that mighty monolith: THE WAY WE DO THINGS HERE. And no one considers that maybe there are new problems to be solved– different needs to be met–  emerging realities that warrant different actions.

manyPart of the problem is that the “many” are a rather abstract lot, and they are notoriously bad at coming to any sort of consensus about what exactly their needs are. It’s difficult for a faceless and nebulous set of communal needs to compete with the compelling and concrete needs that I truck around with me daily.  The logic goes something like this: I know what I need, because I need it, and therefore everyone must need the same thing. So I’m going to assume that I know what you need and knock myself out giving it to you, whether you all need it or not.

But as Spock would be quick to point out, that logic is faulty. I’m not you, and if I really want to “do good” in the world, I need to look outside of myself long enough to see what “the many” really need.  And that’s hard, because as soon as I do that, I find myself in all sorts of uncomfortable territory. It might mean that I have to do something new. It might mean that I have to let go of something I like. It might be risky. Perhaps not quite as risky as locking myself in a room with a melting down reactor core. Perhaps it just feels that way.

oneI want to believe that in the moment of truth I can set aside my own self interest and do the right thing, even when I know the right thing might cause me, or someone else, some short term pain. Even when doing it violates my own singular need for comfort and safety. Even when it would be so much easier to seek refuge in the status quo.

Because when you get right down to it, the status quo only seems easier because it’s familiar. The truth is, the one (or the few) stubbornly clinging to the status quo in the face of inevitable change is expending a lot of effort to stand still.


2 thoughts on “The needs of the many

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