The Needs of the Many and the Needs of the One

I grew up watching Star Trek. It was a family tradition. 5 pm on Thursdays the TV was tuned in and we sat down together. I suspect that I did not always watch with complete attentiveness. Some of the science concepts did not intrigue me the way that they did my older siblings, but I loved the characters and the stories. However when each of the Star Trek films came out, we all went to the theater. Thus I grieved greatly at the death of Spock at the end of Wrath of Khan. Some of his closing words stuck with me as important and true.

Spock: Don’t grieve admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many…outweigh…
Kirk: The needs of the few
Spock: (nods) or the one.
View clip here. Conversation takes place at 1:54

It was an echo of a conversation which took place earlier in the film and helped wrap the story into a meaningful whole. Yet Spock was still dead and we grieved. Then we heard that the next film was to be called The Search for Spock and we waited anxiously. Could they really bring back Spock? They did, of course.

The Search for Spock was not a great movie, but it was exactly the movie I wanted. It let the enterprise crew be heroic. They paid the price of losing the Enterprise, and yet triumphed to return with Spock alive, if confused and recovering. At the end Spock spoke with Kirk in a scene which directly referenced his death scene.

Spock: You came back for me.
Kirk: You would have done the same for me.
Spock: Why would you do this?
Kirk: Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.
View this here.

I loved it. I loved Spock’s look of confusion as he tried to balance this illogical equation of caring.

I’m thinking about this pair of movie scenes because of a conversation I had yesterday about community and selfishness. I was talking with a woman who claimed that embracing selfishness was a way to discard guilt and find happiness. Her point was that we should allow ourselves to want the things that we want. I countered that unchecked selfishness is the source of endless damage and pain. She assured me that it was okay for me to be selfish because I would never do such things, it was not in my nature. I stayed silent because I could see that she was trying to help me to let go of some of my stress and emotional tangle. She is right that I need to allow myself more small selfish things. There is nothing wrong with me getting time to myself, having a hobby, or watching entertainment even though these things do not benefit other people. It is even okay for me to have things I want when they cause inconvenience to others. However, she is also wrong. If I allow habits of selfishness to build in my life I could travel to a place where I am willing to do damage in order to get the things that I want.

Communities thrive on cooperation and self sacrifice. These are not attributes which are lauded in American society. America is all about the individual. This is good. If we do not value the needs of the one then we all risk oppression. However there are times when we must individually sacrifice for the needs of the many. When I think of the movie conversations listed above and applied them to myself, I found something very interesting. In the Wrath of Khan quote, I pictured myself as the one who must sacrifice for the needs of the many. In the Search for Spock quote, I pictured myself as part of the many. It was an ingenious little shell game trick some piece of my mind was playing on me to make sure I never won. It allowed me to reconcile these seeming opposite quotations both as true. Yet it was stealing the power from the contradiction. That contradiction needs to stay strong because both things need to be true, not at the same time, but alternately.

Last May I went on a trip that I wanted which inconvenienced everyone else. I could claim that Howard made me do it, but this is not true. Howard pointed the way and I finally allowed myself to be the one for which many people sacrificed. It was hard and easy at the same time. I’m so grateful it happened. Applying what I learned to daily life has been much harder. Sacrificing for others is as easy as breathing. I give myself away without even thinking about it. Learning to let my loved ones have that same experience is proving to be harder.