It sounds cliché, but one of the most meaningful things I ever saw on television as a child was The Wrath of Kahn where Spock gave his life for the Enterprise and said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” This made perfect logical sense, but emotionally it didn’t truly sink in until much later.
In 1996, Tool released the album Ænima, which I listened to almost daily through my junior and senior years in high school. The album features comedian Bill Hicks saying, “Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all of one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death. Life is only a dream and we are the imagination of ourselves.”
I heard this line over and over again and it slowly started to sink in on a spiritual level. We are all of one consciousness. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. They outweigh my personal needs.
Ask not what your community can do for you, but what you can do for your community.
The anarchist mantra is something like “Everyone contributes as much as they can and takes only what they need,” though I wish those values were stressed far more than they are.
A couple years out of high school, I was riding in a van with a couple friends, on our way to a Dave Matthew’s concert. The van broke down and we barely made it to a rest stop. There were signs clearly stating we would be towed if we left the vehicle there. We stood around, not knowing what to do and not having any money to do it with.
Some guy wandered over and asked if he could help. He took a look at the engine, but didn’t have any ideas on how to fix it, but instead offered to tow us to a place he knew of nearby where we could leave the vehicle for a week or two without being towed or paying a fee. He was already towing a big speed boat. He had to drive 45 minutes to drop it off, then drove all the way back to pick us up and tow us to an abandoned parking lot an exit or two away.
If not for that man, our night would have been a total disaster. We offered to give him what money we had in our pockets and our case of beer that we no longer wanted to drink. He just waved it all off and said “Just pay it forward.”
I had no idea what he was talking about so I asked.
He said something like, “Pay it forward is about the efficiency of our society. Because we live hours away and I don’t really like that kind of beer, it’s just not an efficient use of your resources to try and pay me back. But in the future you may run across someone who needs help where it is efficient and reasonable for you to help out. So just help them out when that happens in exchange for this today. If we all do this, then we all get helped out when we need it and we also don’t need to stress out about paying people back and maybe more importantly, we don’t need to feel cheated if we help someone without getting anything in return. We know it all evens out more efficiently for everyone in the end.”
So we went our separate ways. I’m not sure if we ever even got his name. At some point looking back it occurred to me: that guy owned a boat. A nice boat too. He had a big fancy pickup truck and enough leisure time to spend two hours helping random strangers. Life had been good to him. His strategy worked.
And Spock was so beloved that they spent the entire next movie finding him and bringing him back to life.
And I’ve found in my own life, the more I genuinely embrace these values, the more the community–and capitalism, believe it or not–rewards me. It’s not just extreme situations like this, either. I try my best to use these values in everything that I do, every day, and I find that when I succeed at that, I am rewarded in some way, but it’s frequently not directly from the people I help, or if it is, it often comes years later.
So these three experiences shaped the way I try to view society and how I strive to behave. Spock explained it logically, Tool and Bill Hicks gave it a spirituality, and that random guy at the rest stop gave it a real-world, practical implementation.