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Selfie or Selfless?

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The Oxford Dictionaries has chosen "selfie" as its word of the year for 2013. Selfie is defined as "a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media."

Our question is, in this year -- and the upcoming ones of this decade -- do we need to be more selfie or more selfless? Given the current trends and problems domestically and internationally, it seems to us that "selfless" should be the clear winner.

Selfie was selected to be this year's word over a host of other worthy contenders such as binge-watch, showrooming, and twerk (made famous by the Miley Cyrus "dance" with the Robin Thicke at this year's Video Music Awards). In an email to Silvia Killingsworth of The New Yorker, Katherine Martin, head of the U.S. dictionaries at Oxford, gave the following rationale for the choice of selfie, "...We analyze frequency and historical evidence, but our real goal is to identify an emerging word that embodies the zeitgeist of the year, and that is the driving force behind our choice."

So, selfie is our "zeitgeist" rather than binge-watch, showrooming or twerk? The inconvenient truth is that all and each of these words are a reflection or mirror of our society today. They tell us who we are and what we are becoming.

Over the years, different labels have been given to different generations: the lost generation, the beat generation, the greatest generation, generation Y or the millennials, generation X and the "me" generation.

Tom Wolfe gave the "me decade" label to the baby boomers in a well-known cover article that he wrote for New York magazine in August of 1976. More recently, Joel Stein in a May cover article for Time gave the label of the "ME ME ME Generation" to millennials who are described on Time's cover as "lazy entitled narcissists who still live with their parents."

Stein draws upon a variety of research to support his viewpoint. Elspeth Reeve in a blog for The Wire disagrees with Stein. She draws upon other sources for her perspective and concludes that every generation has been the "Me Me Me Generation" writing, "Basically, it's not the people born after 1980 are narcissists, it's that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older."

Based upon our experience, some do and some don't. And, in general for a variety of reasons including a tremendous decline in trust in our basic institutions over the past three decades, as a nation we have become more self-oriented and confrontational rather than other-directed and collaborative.

In the process, what began at the end of the 60s and early 70s as an ostensibly positive search for self discovery, self-realization and self-actualization has devolved over the years to a negative spiral of being self-centered, self-absorbed and self-delusional. For some in each age group and generational cohort, the narrative of narcissism has trumped the search for meaning and personal growth. As a result the "Me Generation" abounds.

What's wrong with this picture? Not much we guess, if it's a selfie. It's just an expression of one's "me-ness."

We are not opposed to me-ness. But, we think there ought to be a balance. Today, because of the nature of social media and other factors such as the 24 hour "news" cycle -- consumed with opinions -- things have gotten out of kilter. There is an absence of and desperate need for more we-ness.

Not too long ago, that wasn't the case. That's the point E.J. Dionne makes in his recent article for the Washington Post titled, "What We Lost on Nov. 22, 1963" in which he observes, "As Robert Reich has written, these were social undertakings in which all Americans felt they had a stake. As a result, 'society was not seen as composed of us and them; it was the realm of we.' A nation inspired by the capacious understanding of "we" could not escape its rendezvous with civil rights and social justice."

We believe Dionne and Reich overstate the we-ness and unity that existed fifty years ago. We doubt, on the other hand, that there are many who would argue that the nation and its leaders are more focused on "we" instead of "me." In fact, given our current condition, Toby Keith's "It's All About Me" might be appropriate for our new national anthem.

That's our assessment. And, and as stated at the outset of this blog, we think it's time for the citizenry at large to become more selfless. We need a "we generation." We realize that won't and can't be accomplished overnight.

Therefore, let's begin with a small step. Here's a modest proposal. We as citizens should match every selfie we take with a "selflessly" picture. A selflessly is defined as "a photo that one has taken of oneself delivering assistance to a person or persons in need or enabling those people to help themselves."

The holiday season is the perfect time to begin this new approach because it is a period when many of us engage in selfless acts. Let's capture those moments of kindness -- random and otherwise -- and commemorate them on social media. Let's continue that momentum throughout 2014 and beyond.

With persistence and a little pluck, "selflessly" could be the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2015. In any case, we will have begun the long and necessary journey to transform our "Me Generation" to the "We Generation" -- one selflessly single step and picture at a time.

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