I’ve been working (in my mind) on refuting the thesis of Ayn Rand, that selfishness is a virtue. In college, as a misguided youth, I used to beat people over the head with Atlas Shrugged and its message of unbridled capitalism. I’ve spent much of my life since, trying to undo the damage, and prove that morality does not come from a complete lack of restriction on selfish behavior.
Charlie Rose interviewed a former Navy Seal, Eric Greitens, and I found the discussion illuminating on the benefits of altruism. It seems the best military training on the planet selects the most altruistic men, willing to sacrifice their life for their comrades. (You can watch the entire interview, dated 05/27/11, here: http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/11697)
Greitens: “In our class, we had about 220 people in our original class, we went down to twenty.”
Rose: “About ten percent.”
Greitens: “Yeah, ten percent of the original class.”
Rose: “And those that don’t make it you have said, is because of fear.
Rose: Because fear overcame them,
Rose: And the thing, that the people who succeeded, how did they handle fear?
Greitens: So what happens is as you’re going through [training], you are pushed to your physical, mental, and emotional limit, and past. You’re pushed way past the envelope of your talent, to the core of your character. And what happens is, that, everyone is in pain, everyone is afraid.
Greitens: Great pain. Searing pain, when you’re going through alot of the physical training. Real serious pain. But what happens is, people either start thinking about themselves, and they think about all the pain, they think about all the fear about what might happen, and that, that leads them to collapse. Others who are in that great moment– I remember for myself, there were times when I was thinking, ‘If I were alone, I might not make it.’ But there’s a guy to my left, and there’s a guy to my right, and they both need me to be strong. And it’s if you can step outside of yourself, even in that moment of pain, and think about what you have to do for others, that’s what makes you strong, that’s what gets you through, and that’s ultimately what creates these incredible teams.
Greitens then discusses the bravery of the Navy Seals injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how most of them are ready to return to the battlefield after recovering from their injuries. But he makes another striking observation regarding what soldiers want to do when they’re done with combat.
Greitens: And when I asked [a comrade who lost both his legs and could not return to combat duty] , ‘So what would you want to do, if you can’t get back to your unit right away?’. He said to me, ‘You know, I’d really like to go back home and be a teacher.’ Another one wanted to be a police officer, another one said to me that he wanted to find a way to go home and be a football coach and a mentor. So it was clear to me that all of these men still had a desire to serve, and that in addition to hearing ‘thank you’, they also needed to hear from all of us, ‘We still need you.’ So, I left the hospital, I called two friends who were disabled veterans, they put in the money from their disability checks, I contributed my combat pay, and we used that to start The Mission Continues. And at The Mission Continues, we help wounded & disabled veterans to continue their mission of public service by working in our communities here at home, as citizen leaders.
His book is titled, The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, The Making of the Navy Seal.