On Selfishness

Just lately, I’ve noticed a tendency for us to become selfish, or, at kindest, self-absorbed. You’d think that material prosperity would make a people more generous, not less; surely the more one has, the more one would want to share. But it doesn’t appear to work that way. The more we accumulate materially, the more we seem to demand.

Here’s why I say this. During the passage of the hurricane, which, when it hit the Bahamas, was a strong Category Four, I listened with some disbelief to the people who phoned into radio stations to complain that they had no water or no electricity or (I laughed out loud at this one) no cable service.

What struck me was the fundamental selfishness of such observations. The people who called in to complain seemed to have no concept that Bahamians other than themselves have to put their own lives at risk in order to provide such services. And what struck me even more was that the response to these complaints was not the outrage I expected, but an encouragement of them, a discussion of the inability of our utilities to provide Bahamians with the kind of service that Bahamians had come to expect.

It was a hurricane, for heaven’s sake, a time when safety comes before comfort. Electricity is shut down to keep people from being unnecessarily electrocuted; water is turned off to avoid contamination. In the middle of an act of God, it would seem that prayer is a more appropriate response than gluing oneself to a television screen.

I was reminded of the Americans who asked me, when I was a front desk cashier in a local hotel, whether I thought the travel agent would refund them their money because it had rained for the whole time they were in the Bahamas. Only I tend to forgive tourists more, because, well, they’re tourists. And at the time I thought how I never thought I’d hear a Bahamian make such a complaint, because, well, Bahamians know better than to expect the weather to accommodate their whims and desires. But this last storm has proven me wrong.

Then there were the people who took advantage of the heavy weather and the desertion of the streets to go and rob businesses, or the men who dressed up as policemen and used the storm to gain entrance to the homes of unsuspecting citizens whom they robbed.

It takes a special society, to breed people who prey on others in the midst of misfortune. The nation that produces citizens who find nothing wrong with complaining that they are uncomfortable when others are losing their homes, or with pretending to offer help when all they are intending is harm is a nation in which selfishness rules, in which neighbours mean nothing.

Contrast these attitudes to the defiance and the pride demonstrated by the man who must be the greatest leader this region has ever known, no matter whether one agrees with his politics or not — the man who brought first world health and educational standards to a country not 100 years out of slavery — Fidel Castro. In preparing his people for Ivan’s onslaught, he declared that he would not accept aid from any country currently levying economic sanctions on Cuba. By being willing to suffer material deprivation for the sake of a principle, he demonstrated to his people that there are things more important than comfort in this world. It’s a lesson we Bahamians would do well to learn.

You see, self-sufficiency and independence are hard things to come by these days. It’s far easier to be materially comfortable and financially dependent on someone else. But there’s something to be said for the kind of independence that Castro preaches; for it’s one thing to declare oneself politically independent, to have a flag and an anthem and a head of state. But it’s quite another to demonstrate oneself willing and able to survive a storm and to look after oneself.

We’re very good at waving our flags and donning our colours. But if we can’t survive for long without electricity and running water, there’s not much to be said about the ability of our nation to survive over time.

And survival is the thing at which we Bahamians were once very good. Until only sixty years ago, we were one of the poorest countries in the region. Ours was not a colony that produced profits for Mother England; even white Bahamians were poor. Whatever “superiority” they asserted resided in the colour of their skin, not in the girth of their purses. Despite our poverty, however, we were rich: in selflessness, in community, in our abilitiy to survive. It’s a part of our culture that’s rapidly disappearing; but it’s a part that we would do very well to preserve.

You see, it’s all very well and good to ask Caricom for help with the rebuilding of Grand Bahama and Abaco in the wake of Frances. But even our northern devastation pales in the face of the decimation of Grenada; and we must remember that Bahamians, by and large, are people with means, and Nassau escaped the worst of the damage. I believe that before we beg others for help, we must offer some ourselves.

The good Lord said that it was is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. I begin to understand what exactly He meant. Now I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a Grenadian at this moment, with 90% of the capital damaged, including the hospital, the disaster management headquarters, the parliament buildings, the prison, and the Prime Minister’s home. The magnitude of the rebuilding effort boggles my mind. I believe that even though we have suffered our own damages, as the richest nation in Caricom, we must have some obligation, to contribute at least something to the rebuilding of the capital there. I would be a far prouder Bahamian if, while we talked about helping Grand Bahama and Abaco, we spared a thought for and sent a coffer to Grenada and our other neighbours.