Are we givers or are we takers?

By By Brian Johnson

By Brian Johnson

Our ethical world is flooded with complexities. Because of these, the life of an idealist is constantly being shaped by the challenges of reality. As we get older, we hear with greater frequency the societal whisperings telling us to give up on idealism and just accept things as they are. It seems that the idealist in us tends to fade with time.

One aspect of idealism is the conflict between oneself and the collective. It’s a battle between altruism and egoism. Tweaking this conflict into terms of giving and taking may give us insight into our complex world. Instead of asking whether we are selfish or selfless, we can ask ourselves: Are we givers or takers?

Our ethical conscience tends to put the act of giving on a pedestal, as it rightly should. Giving, many religions tell us, is the essence of our existence. The golden rule began with the precept of giving. Simply, if we hope to be benefitted, then we must work to benefit others.

Taking, however, is the antithesis of giving. Taking is simply a process of life, key to survival. A certain amount of taking should be guilt-free, but taking too much should not be. We must be careful not to take too much.

But how much is too much? That is a question that our consciences alone must answer. We ought to be aware that our comfortable positions in life will urge us to rationalize our consumption habits. These rationalizations should be (but rarely are) tossed aside if they conflict with our conscience.

We give and take on many different levels.

On a national level, are we takers or givers? Our country gives billions of dollars in foreign aid each year. This fact alone might convince some that we are givers. One overwhelming fact says otherwise. We consume and take so much as Americans, that if everyone in the world were to consume as much we do, it would take more than four earths to support us all. So when much of the world says we are imperialistic and self-serving, maybe they’re right. Some wonder why there is so much anti-American sentiment in the world. Maybe the resentment is caused, in part, by our fixation on taking. When there’s an incredible amount of inequality, is it not human nature, however unjustified, to despise the group that has the most?

As a nation whose foundations lie in an abhorrence of monarchies, one might think that we would define leadership as a position to serve, and not to be served like the kings and queens we so despised. With that in mind, isn’t it ironic that at the same time we claimed the title of “leaders of the free world,” we sat on our “velvet thrones of luxury?” In a way, we are like the old English kings that burdened the American colonies with taxes. Only instead of taxes, we collect from the world in a much more subtle way-with our economy in the name of free trade.

Now, on a more individualistic note, are we givers or takers? That’s a question that each must answer. When deciding which career path to take, do we think about how we want to give to society? Or do we think about how we can take from society? It’s a question of priorities. It seems our first priority is to have a livelihood or make money for ourselves and our families. The emphasis is placed on the salary, while what we give to society comes in second. Wouldn’t it make more sense to reverse the priorities? Our seemingly lackadaisical concern to give back to society is frightening.

The same “sell-out” attitude of the professional world has infiltrated our universities as well. While we are busy educating ourselves, do we ever consider how we will benefit society with our new knowledge? I think few do. To most students, college is simply a pit stop to financial success. Greedy attitudes are pervasive in our society. “I want to start my own business” or “I want to work for myself” are desires expressed by many. Is the intent behind such statements that of giving or taking? Granted, while many individuals who work for themselves want to contribute to society, many are also looking for a loophole in which to maximize their paychecks. I ask again, is the intent to give or take?

If we want idealistic values to reside with us as an individual or a nation, we must question our motives.

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