I suppose that one cannot be in any line of work for very long without becoming a student of human behaviors, intentionally or unintentionally. The stories that I can tell from my years in a for-profit environment reveal the zenith of both corporate heroism as well as personal greed. (Ask me about those sometime.) Likewise, my past ten years in the not-for-profit arena contain tales of stirring courage as well as frustratingly open self-aggrandizement. In whatever venue we travel, the polars of humanity are there. “The great central human considerations may be found everywhere,” wrote author Joseph Langland.
With that in mind, I read a recent report by a midwestern college that provided a short profile of its first-year students, their capacities and their outlooks on certain matters. And there in the second line, I read a statistic that both puzzled and discouraged me. The report stated that 71.8% of this group feel that it’s “very important” to help others in difficulty.
I don’t believe that these statistics were presented as either positive or negative traits, but rather a report about how these students look statistically. Nor can I say that they are typical for the age group or an overall college population. But I could not prevent myself from a certain degree of amazement that nearly 30% of any diverse group would respond in this way, let alone a group of college students whose education and experiences might be expected to produce reports of greater compassion. Yes, 71.8% of the respondents signaled a high degree of commitment to those in trouble. Maybe the real story lies within that metric. But nearly 3 in 10 did not think that helping others in difficulty was very important at all.
I don’t think that I am naive, Particularly in an age where every sordid and unkind act is reported in detail over ubiquitous social media outlets, criminality and cruelty seem to be rather common. Yet I was struck by the response of this audience, one which, on the whole, might be considered to be more worldly, more in tune with the interdependence that mankind requires for survival, one which seems to pride itself in its attacks upon injustice, calamity and even boorish behaviors with their techno devices in hand. This was an audience of men and women with at least one full year of college under their belts, more than enough to have begun the awakening that society craves in its “next gen” leaders. And 3 in 10 have little apparent concern about helping others in trouble.
Maybe these are the outliers, the slow-to-mature ones who have yet to cross the threshold from narcissistic self-serving to a more selfless giving. Maybe they see the development of their future careers as so all-consuming as to have tunnel vision to those futures. Perhaps they didn’t understand the question. But whatever their excuses, these respondents are cause for worry, both for themselves and those for whom they do not see the need to help.
Our reality is that we depend upon the sensitivity and collegiality of one another now more than ever. Some may deceive themselves into believing that they have survived and thrived in their lives all by themselves, without the presence of others. But it’s delusional thinking. Even without mentors or family members, we are impacted daily by the density of humanity on earth and the speed with which our actions are felt by others. The statistic above makes me wonder what those 3 in 10 feel about all of the actors in their lives, known and unknown, who helped them attain the chance at a college education.
The survey question didn’t even come close to broaching the issue of our global interdependence. Without a sense of importance about helping those in difficulty at home, the 3 in 10 can hardly be looked to for global solutions to poverty, human rights violations, foreign wars or maybe even (could they be this myopic?) climate change. The most pressing issues of our present and future demand extraordinary abilities to “walk in another’s shoes” and live our lives in the mutually dependent manner that our future requires. It will take 100% of our human capacities to survive those most pressing issues. And that’s a statistic which requires little interpretation….