There has been a lot of general criticism about the self-centered nature of the ‘Baby Boomers’. While visiting last week, my father commented that many of today’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that the Boomers “never lived through the Depression”. In a recent conversation with my son, I found out he has the view that one of the biggest problems of his generation is that they all seem to think the world should be organized to give them whatever they want, and preferably sooner rather than later—a collective expectation of instant gratification! When I listen carefully to the marketers and advertisers it seems he may be right: the underlying message they communicate is that the purpose of life should be to get what you want—and preferably on credit.
This focus on ‘self’ is reflected online. Immensely popular websites like MySpace and Facebook, where mostly young people share factoids, photos and videos about themselves, their thoughts and their lives with their friends or the entire world, allow large numbers of people to live their lives as, quite literally, an ‘open book’. Twitter takes this to a narcissistic extreme, allowing people to post information about what they are doing right in the moment for the entire world to see. Even this blogging phenomenon (40 million bloggers at last count), while an exercise in self-expression, is also pretty much another vehicle for many of being at the center of a conversation and talking about what is on our mind.
This tendency seems to be a function of societies where a majority of the population is near the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This is certainly not unique to the USA: it seems to occur in many developed nations where people have the time and resources to indulge in lots of conversation about themselves. I’ve found in my travels that affluent societies tend to be extremely self-centered and image-conscious. When you are no longer focused on your physiological needs and personal safety, how you look, who you know, what you own, and your social status becomes almost or more important that what you do, produce or create.
At the level of the individual, this sort of narcissistic self-centeredness is common. It is the foundation for most ‘isms’. I have found this to be the case for any addiction or behavior pattern where people do the same thing over and over and expect different results. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, would say that alcohol is merely a symptom of a disease of ‘self-centeredness’. I think that it appears as if this way of being in the world is particular to the Boomers because of their sheer numbers. I believe they are just examples of it and that the same conversation can be observed in every generation.
Basically, narcissism or self-centeredness is a kind of inherent ‘blindness’ in which we believe ‘we’ are indistinguishable from our thoughts and feelings. While we are the ‘thinker’ resting our chin in our hand, we are simultaneously believing whatever we are perceiving about the world is actually the way we think or feel it is. This locks us into a self-referential ‘box’ or relationship with the world that we can never escape by ourselves—an example of what Einstein meant when he said, “We’ve created problems that we cannot solve by thinking the way we thought when we created them”. To resolve this paradox, is to understand and make a distinction between ‘who we are’ and our ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’. We have thoughts and feelings. We are not our thoughts and feelings.
To resolve this kind of self-centered way of relating to the world, we need to take responsibility for all we observe and experience—we need to own our own reality. We can then ask ourselves if our commitments determine our reality or if our view of our reality dictates our commitments. At the end of the day, it is our commitments and our actions that determine our future—not what we think.
If a large number of people commit to having and doing as a product of a self-centered existence, then we can expect the masses to drift along seeking instant gratification and acting to satisfy their personal agendas at the expense of the larger community. The future of our world, our societies and ourselves is in peril unless and until we can wake up to the cost of our self-referentiality and begin to commit and act in the service of the larger community. Not that we need to do so at the expense of our self-interest, but because of our self-interest—perhaps even our very survival. I hope and pray those of us who are older can acknowledge this and be models of ‘otherness’: participating ourselves in turning possibilities for a world that works for everyone into reality and teaching and mentoring others to do so as well.
We must also acknowledge and take responsibility for our part in creating the status quo and the seemingly intractable problems of the world. If we attempt to pass them off as ‘not of our making’, we’re simply demonstrating the kind of self-concern that so many people in the world and our society are accusing us of.