David M. Shribman | October 13, 2018
The great tension in American life today may not be Republican versus Democrat, nor rural versus urban, nor rich versus poor, nor liberal versus conservative, nor management versus labor, nor even President Donald Trump versus his never-Trump opponents. All of those tensions, to be sure, are part of the national conversation. And though they all represent vital themes in America, and though the specific conflicts they provoke may be of great moment, they still are largely of the moment. They fill our newspapers and our websites, they dominate the dinner table and the coffee shop and even the NFL sidelines, but they do not address the fundamental tension in our national life, our spiritual lives, our enduring values.
Instead, nearly every debate in Congress, in the chambers of our courts, in the sanctuaries of our religious institutions, in our neighborhoods and in our families revolves around a core tension, the one we confront when we rear our children, when we deal with our relationships, when we conduct our business, when we seek to engage and to harness our dreams — indeed from the moment we rise from sleep to the time we recline for rest. The tension is simple to state and difficult to resolve:
Me versus Us.
This unresolved tension takes form in the fundamental questions we face every day: Do we live to serve ourselves or to serve others? To reap rewards from our toil, or to toil without reward? To sculpt goals that are personal, or societal? To be selfish, or selfless?
Is a civilization’s goal to promote individual liberties or group liberties, to promote personal wealth or to share the wealth? Is a nation’s character formed by the entrepreneurial instinct or the charitable impulse? Is its guiding folklore the relief effort after a hurricane and the barn-raising after the fire, or is it the manufacturing magnate and the solitary innovator in a Silicon Valley garage?
This tension — and these foundational questions — drives much of our liturgy and literature, from the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians (“Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others”) to Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (“He wished to raise the class at the expense of individuals rather than individuals at the expense of the class”). It lies at the heart of the human condition.
Read more here.