08/19/2010 03:16 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Deciding Between Personal Well-Being and a Greater Good

In the movie "The American President" starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, a climactic scene near the end features an emotional speech from the president who, along with his new love interest, has been relentlessly attacked for their romantic relationship. In the speech, the president directly addressed the difficulties in walking the line between protecting oneself and protecting greater principles that work against the Self.

Michael Douglas as the president says, "America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've got to want it bad because it's going to put up a fight. It's going to say, You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil who is standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag."

The fiery public debate about the building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York illustrates this point well. On one side, we have those who feel strongly that the building of a mosque near Ground Zero is a direct insult to those Americans who died in the World Trade Center attack, indeed to all Americans who were traumatized by the tragedy of 9/11. On the other side, we have those who urge us to set our personal pain aside and focus on putting into action the greater principles of religious freedom as the core foundational principle of the American way of life.

When we face the highly emotional and painful task of having to make a decision between personal well-being and some greater principle, the upholding of which may cause us pain, the stress is enormous, adding to the difficulty of making the decision clearly and rationally. How does one make decisions such as this?

As a clinical psychologist with more than 30 years experience helping people sort through the process of making huge personal decisions, it is apparent that there is no template to guide such decisions. I have been witness to people making excruciating decisions to place a child up for adoption, close the doors of a family business that no longer seems viable that employs dependent family members, donate body organs and many other such examples decisions that hold the potential for personal risk or harm for the benefit of another person, organization or philosophical position.

Each of us face lesser variations of this challenge every day in varying degrees of seriousness. Every parent faces the dilemma almost hourly: how much do I sacrifice my needs for my child and how much do I do for myself? Every employer faces the parallel dilemma of how much to provide for his or her employees and how much to keep for him or herself. A prominent social psychologist, Elliot Aronson, described what he called the "dynamic tension between the values associated with conformity and individuality." He was referring to the ongoing challenge to address the question, How much do I do for you and how much do I do for myself? If I do this for you, it will be at great personal expense, and if I do this for me at your expense I run the risk of being considered selfish or worse.

In regards to the mosque debate, do we protect ourselves and our feelings of anguish and outrage, or do we protect the rights of people to practice their religion freely even when that practice offends many of us? All I know is, the answer will necessarily and inevitably be different for each of us, depending on how we choose. And whatever choice you make, there's a price to be paid.

How would YOU choose?