These last few days have provided a bit of a revelation. I decided, unprompted, to monitor just how many times people I was communicating with used the terms “I” or “me”.  I wasn’t prepared for what I discovered.

As a bit of context, all of my days are spent in conversations concerning a myriad of topics – poverty, politics, food banks, citizen engagement, family issues, and foreign aid. That includes a fair bit of traffic on Facebook and Twitter. All this provides a bit of a bead on where people are at and what are the issues that are important to them.

So when I began noting the number of times people used the words “I” and “me” in their communications as compared to “they,” “we,” or “them,” the results were overwhelming. The tendency seems readily apparent that we are becoming an increasingly self-absorbed people. That spells a bit of trouble when it comes to making a difference in the broader world.

It turns out there are a good number of studies and statistics that back this up. One article from a few months ago in Live Science opened up with the statement,

Today’s young adults are more “Generation Me” than “Generation We,” according to a new analysis, which found a decline over four decades in civic engagement and concern for others, alongside increases in such life goals as making a lot of money. 

For those of us attempting to draw more citizens into effective engagement, this might spell part of the reason we are experiencing such difficulties: people are just more into themselves. You can read the article in its entirety here, but it isn’t pretty, especially as it relates to the younger generations. Enough data exists on this trend that it helped to explain why my own efforts at getting citizens to think of a broader world haven’t been as successful as I had hoped.

Welcome to the age of the Id, which Freud labeled the driving force behind personality. It not only strives to fulfill our basic urges, it also provides all of the energy necessary to drive personality. The more we descended into the “Century of the Self,” the more we became the centre of our own worlds – a natural state only refined through civilizing influences, compassion and education. Freud called it, “the dark, inaccessible part of our personality.”

For millennia our concepts of progress have been impacted by this belief that humans are essentially tribal and can only escape such confines by exposure to influences far beyond our reach – exploration, science, objective data, refining principles, larger institutions, and love’s compassion, to get us out of our comfort zones. What does it say, then, when data seems to suggest we’re receding from the larger world? And it’s not good enough to just lay the blame at the feet of the young; my observations of the “I” and “me” phenomena of the last while revealed a marked focus on the self among all age groups.

Our parents were much like we are, but a depression, the spread of the democratic spirit, shared social and financial programs, television, a world war, and the United Nations, elevated them beyond their limits to a world that raised their own capacities as individuals and as collective citizens. So much of what we have now is all about the journey to ourselves, not the broader life. Social media often serves as a platform to usher others into our personal worlds as opposed to the other way around. The gratification and pursuit of the self are leaving us precariously strapped when it comes to compassion and the willingness to understand the broader implications of our choices.

Maybe this gets back to what Alexandr Solzhenitsyn predicted as he left the comforts of Vermont for the historic rigors of his native Russia. Living in the West taught him that materialism was hollowing the greater part of us out. We wanted things more than truth, vanity more than values, individualism more than interdependence, and partisanship over politics. Some mocked him at the time for heading back to a country that had once consigned him to a Gulag. But like Mandela, Solzhenitsyn came to understand that me without we is an empty, self-distracted life.

Our parents and grandparents spend time with others not only in family gatherings, but in building wells in Africa, supporting public policies that built shared opportunities for all in fields like health and education, cemented bonds with other people from other cultures as a way of building a safer and more peaceable world, and starting businesses that built solid relationships with their customers and their communities. We appear to be moving in the opposite direction because of our inability to get outside of ourselves. In our fixation on our own reflection, we have become the thinning out of humanity.

One final thing. The greatest revelation for me in this little research project was just how often I referred to myself in my own words and writings. I, too, have grown too close to myself. In order to rediscover those better angels of my nature, I have come to realize that I must become more giving, forgiving, and tolerant. I must stand upon my principles, which are often far greater than my daily existence. The world will only get better as I heal myself from my introspection. For all of us, our focus on self has become a cautionary tale, and we shall only escape it once we learn that our humanity was made for the world and not merely for our pleasure. This is where citizenship begins.