Excerpted from Me to We: Turning Self-Help On Its Head by Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger. Copyright 2004 by Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger. Excerpted, with permission by John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
In our travels, we have met some exceptional people who have made us rethink the values and trends of our North American lifestyle. One young man prompted us to reexamine our sense of community as reflected through television and American pop culture. We met him while traveling through the Andes Mountains in Ecuador on a visit to one of the primary schools that Free the Children had helped to construct. That night, sitting around the fire, we asked him what had brought him to this remote part of the world. He answered that he had been searching for a place where there was no TV.
He told us that he had been a participant on the first ever show of the phenomenally successful Survivor television series. In this program, a group of strangers are stranded in an exotic but isolated location. The group is divided into two tribes that compete against each other every week in staged contests. The losing tribe must vote off a member, until, in the final episode, only two contenders remain to vie for a $1 million prize. As you can imagine, the competition tends to bring out the worst in the participants. Petty complaints are aired on camera behind the backs of other tribe members. Bold-faced lies are shamelessly told; pacts are made and broken; alliances are betrayed and teammates are stabbed in the back.
The show was a phenomenal success. Viewers got hooked because it was 'reality' television, and they identified with the ruthless competition they witnessed.
The former cast member we met went on to explain that at the end of the show, he returned to the United States to unexpected fame and fortune. A modeling agency quickly signed him on and he received offers to appear in well paying commercials. He dated one of the other Survivor participants and came to be known as "the guy from Survivor" everywhere he went.
Gradually, though, he felt trapped in Survivor -- not the role itself, but in the constant rivalry it stood for. All around him, he saw relationships treated like commodities and it felt as though he was always in a competition with people to get ahead. In the end he chose to vote himself off the island... of North America. He bought a one-way ticket to South America and spent the better part of a year traveling from one small, impoverished village to another, with everything he owned in a backpack. He was amazed at the generosity of the 'poor' people he met, he told us, and in these villages, he found a richness of life that he had been missing. He ended up working with a local charitable group in a caring community to which he could belong, where people didn't plot to edge him out, but valued and respected what he brought to their lives. It was everything he lacked in his old life in North America.
Perhaps the Survivor show was a more telling tale of 'reality' than anyone ever realized. When you think about it, millions of people living in North America act as though they are trapped in an episode of Survivor. As the rules of the TV game stipulate, only one person can win so every man (or women) is in it for himself. Millions go through their day motivated by one thing: 'what's in it for me?' Society at large supports that attitude (think of self-help books such as "Looking Out for Number One"). The trend to focus on the individual is seen in other ways: membership in neighborhood organizations is declining, rates of volunteerism are at record lows, and our sense of community is disintegrating.
Millions may subscribe to an individualistic culture, but ironically, this kind of behavior touches us all, and in very negative ways. This lack of community and connection to others is even affecting our health. An Ontario Ministry of Health report shows that decreased social contacts and declining support networks are linked with high blood pressure, heart disease, depression and suicide. Today, all of these health epidemics are at record levels. The World Health Organization projects that in less than 20 years, depression will be the second leading cause of disability in the world.
In order to reverse these alarming trends, perhaps we need to focus a little less on "what's good for ME" and a lot more on "what's good for WE" -- our community, nation and world. In short, we need to start helping others more than ever before. While helping others helps the larger community, we've also learned through our charitable work over the past decade is that by turning outwards, we improve our own life, health, career and family bonds. Whether it's spending more time with our kids, giving our elderly neighbor a hand with clearing the snow, volunteering in a soup kitchen or getting involved with a social justice group, the act of reaching out to another person has an empowering effort. Seeing the personal benefits of being concerned for others means that we have the insight to understand that when we stop competing against each other and start cooperating, we are strengthening the community to which each one of us belongs.
Here's to a new season and a new attitude. Perhaps one day soon, the TV executives will recognize the potential of helping others as well and a new type of reality TV show will hit the airwaves and help build community. Tune in.