One of the fundamental lessons I learned growing up was family first. We were the kind of family that ate dinner every night together. The TV was turned off and there were no other distractions allowed during family time. I come from a large family and there was always some soccer game or band practice happening so outside of dinner we were going in different directions. Still, the message growing up was family came first. The needs of the family unit were more important than the individual. Rent came before new shoes, groceries came before oboe reeds. As a working class family, that was the only way we could all thrive.
When I got to boot camp two weeks after graduating high school, the motto of ‘Ship, Shipmate, Self’ was quickly instilled. The ship always comes first. When in the heat of combat, keeping the ship in fighting order is the priority over anything else. Next is the person next to you. Their life supersedes your own which means do what it takes to save them. Only when those first two criteria are met could a sailor then tend to their own needs. Coming from a family first background, this motto didn’t require any real adjustment on my part. My crew was my family and their needs came before mine.
I didn’t leave that mentality behind when my time in the Navy ended. I like to think I’ve always lived by the ideal of Ship, Shipmate, Self. When it comes to family, church, and country I try to live by the Navy expression. To me this priority system is the only way to ensure success for everyone.
There is a shift in priorities in American culture today. It’s somewhere between ‘What’s in it for me’ and ‘Every man for himself’. This mindset guarantees success for some but usually at the expense of another. What does a society look like when individual success is valued over the collective success of a community? Something tells me we won’t have to wait very long to find out.
In the case of a Navy ship, it means certain disaster. If the Navy adopted an “Every Sailor for himself” motto, ships would turn tail and run at the first sign of combat. Sailors would leave their shipmates behind in a flooding compartment rather than risk going back for them. It’s hard to defend a country when your priority is your own life over that of others.
If I put my career and ambition over my family, I’d likely still be living in the Midwest. I would have missed watching my nephew Toby fight his battle with CHD and he would have missed out on my support of him. If I hadn’t welcomed my brother into my home last year and cared for him during his recovery from surgery, there is a good chance he wouldn’t be alive today. What has caring for my family cost me? A little money perhaps and my time. Yet what have I gained by putting my family before myself? The joy of watching Toby take his first steps, the pride in knowing my brother is happy and healthy for the first time in nearly a decade. What I gained by far outweighs any expense on my part.
Country, Community, Self
For six years of my life I put my country first when I served in the Navy. While my time in service wasn’t easy, the benefits of doing so again outweighed the personal cost. I take the time to vote in every election. I research the candidates and the issues and see both sides of an issue before making an informed decision. Outside of running for office or military service, voting is the best way to serve our country.
Where I struggle is with community. It’s easy to put my church community, my friends community, and my family community above self but what about the community in which I live? Yesterday I had a bag of fast food and a $20 dollar bill. I was stopped at a red light and there stood a homeless man desperate for anything. I hesitated. I didn’t need both and I knew if I gave him either I’d make his day. The light turned green and I drove off choosing self over community. It didn’t matter what he would have done with the money or the food. What mattered was how it would have made me feel to make the effort and help him out. Instead I did what so many of us do, I turned away and drove off.
I know this is an area of my life I need to work on and I hope I won’t be alone. Many of the social and economic problems facing our community and our country can be solved if more of us think of others before ourselves. I know it’s hard, I know most of us have busy lives making just enough to get by. We all think we’re stretched too thin and helping others just isn’t a priority when we need so much help ourselves. But isn’t that the whole point? We all need help, some more than others but wouldn’t an extra pair of hands make a world of difference even if it’s just an hour a week or a few minutes a day? I help you today, you help me tomorrow, and our combined load is lightened by our combined willingness to lend a hand.
The danger of course is always being the one to put others first in a community that doesn’t reciprocate. When that happens, the answer can’t be to stop putting others first. The answer could be to find another community but that doesn’t feel like a right answer either. If you have a good answer for that please let me know what it is!
I truly believe we can accomplish more as individuals, as a community, and as a country when we work together. Humans aren’t meant to go it alone. We need each other to not only survive, but to thrive as a civilization.
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” -Spock