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The Many Meanings of Being Selfish | The Nation

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The Many Meanings of Being Selfish


(Reuters/Jim Bourg)

Writing Contest Finalist

We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s eighth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to answer this question in 800 words: It’s clear that the political system in the US isn’t working for many. If you had to pick one root cause underlying our broken politics, what would it be and why? We received close to 700 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Jim Nichols (no relation to The Nation’s John Nichols), an undergraduate at Georgia State University; and Julia Di, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Darnestown, Maryland, and Bryn Grunwald, a recent graduate of the Peak to Peak Charter in Boulder, Colorado, who were co-winners in the high school category. The three winners receive cash awards of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays here.   —The Editor

Three weeks ago, I thought I knew what it meant to have an “out-of-body experience.” It took me a while to realize that I was going to have a much more literal one, with more dire consequences, if I didn’t stop looking around at my surroundings before thinking about where I was placing my feet. I didn’t blame myself, however; everywhere I turned I could see white buildings and old pillars, aesthetic aids to help place me in a state that reeked of tourist-like awe amidst a few square miles of presidents, progress and politics. This was where history was made. I was taken by the illusion of something profoundly thrilling in the otherworldliness of Capitol Hill, as if it wasn’t pavement and grass that I was walking on, but a place imbued with the power to change lives.

I didn’t truly recognize the people I passed, the staffers I conversed with, and even the Congressmen and Senators I met until I had a moment to sit down with a legislative aide and I realized—

They looked tired.

In that moment, I felt myself reconciling ideals with reality. These people were made out of the same stuff we all were, from the tourists to the bus drivers to the senators themselves. They have no inhuman powers, and what I took for otherworldly, was anything but; simply the work of human beings running on coffee and lack of sleep—not that they didn’t have the power to change lives.

As I listened to the aide talk about the bill he was currently concerned about, an agricultural bill that I knew little about before walking into that conference room, I wondered. Imagining the rest of the world, I wondered how their feelings fell on the spectrum between the the two sides of Capitol Hill I had seen in the last five hours: a student’s textbook fairytale, and an adult’s reality. Were they entranced by the mere idea, or disillusioned to government’s wiles? Even the tourists, who populated the galleries and crowded the security lines—did they believe in their government officials, or in old buildings and white pillars? I once believed that government was the hero in the story of our nation. Then I grew up.

But too many have taken the idea of growing up to mean distancing themselves. With the illusion gone, who wants to deal with the ugly truth of politics, or to even go beyond pointing fingers and blame from afar, to come up close and confront the underlying issues plaguing our system of government? It’s easy to sit hidden by television screens and newspaper headlines, to care more about how the outcomes affect you than about what you can do to affect the outcomes. To choose the path of least resistance, they say, is a form of selfishness. As President John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

To tell you the truth, I began this essay thinking that I was going to confront selfishness as the cause of our broken politics; the unfailing ability of self-interest to come before even the good of the nation in a world where politicians would rather see programs fail and opportunities pass than to cooperate, compromise, or calm down. At the same time, America itself was founded on the principles of individual liberty and pursuit of happiness—a blatant call, in some lights, for citizens to pursue their own good. Standing there on Capitol Hill, I discovered yet another facet to the ever-complex idea of selfishness: though our system of government was founded as a government “by the People, for the People,” so many of us have chosen the path of least resistance, to the point that doing our part in monitoring government has come to mean choosing sides and hoping that the prizefight will fall in our favor.

Selfishness, I realized, is more complicated than can be summed up in one dictionary definition, or even one essay. Fittingly, government is the same way; it is multi-facted and difficult to fully understand or to control. There is no secret solution to solve all our troubles, because our troubles are as complex as the system they are troubling. But the important thing is that we are willing to try. Perhaps, at the heart of selfishness itself, what is even more important is that we as citizens never lose hope.

The next day, as I boarded my plane back to Seattle with a heavy heart and a handful of regrets, I glanced at the headlines loading on my phone: the bill didn’t pass.

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