The Unselfish Philosophy


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The First Nations of Canada have a traditional philosophy that is central to their oral teachings. The Cree version of this philosophy is Manatan, and while the word varies through languages and dialects, it always invokes a larger thought. Loosely translated, it would be the idea of universal respect—respect for self, for individuals, for other groups, and for mother earth. Respect itself may not be enough of a definition, as Manatan invokes a sense of caring, love, and connectedness as well. This philosophy is the guiding principle in all aspects of existence from one’s personal life and family relations to the political and economic decisions of the tribe and leadership.

A full translation of the intent of this word is difficult in English (je pense en français aussi) because it doesn’t mesh well with the traditional Western way of thinking. Our European and colonialist roots teach us that someone must lose if we are to win, and hence we perceive any win by someone else as a loss to ourselves. This is the underlying principle influencing our decisions. From personal relationships to negotiations, we jockey for position to ensure that our wins exceed our losses. We extend this to our authority structures, too, and strive not only to climb the proverbial ladder but hold onto and take advantage of this position once we achieve it.

When we think in a win-lose paradigm, we act in a selfish way. We negotiate without thought for the other party. Personal gain is our primary consideration. Although there are some exceptions for companies who make legitimate efforts, our corporations often try to put a “green spin” on their products, even if they don’t really have a true environmental impact. The spin is used as a marketing ploy. If we perceive the economy and the environment to be in conflict, the economy usually wins.

But the most dangerous aspect of this paradigm is that when we think in win-lose terms, we believe that at some point we will lose. This drives an attitude of entitlement and advantage; we must maximize our wins to pay for our inevitable loss.

The inappropriate conduct—whether physical, emotional, or economic—of those in authority is nothing more than entitlement. It’s a lust to seize all that can be seized before the next downfall. Historically, this type of person has been admired and respected, with those achieving positions of influence and power being held in high esteem.

Because win-lose is like a scale, are we comfortable with weighing a successful person’s accomplishments again what they did t o get there? While we may have advanced beyond the Mad Men era, those same roots continue to influence us today.

It’s unfortunate that universal ideals are seldom, if ever, universally accepted and practiced. Yet there would doubtless be a positive impact if Manatan became a core teaching in our society. How unfortunate it is that the European masses weren’t the ones to be “civilized.” It’s likely not the fault of Indigenous teachers, but rather those arriving on the New World’s shores, those old dogs incapable of learning new tricks.

While most of us arrived on these shores through good navigation, it will be through the proper use of a moral compass that we truly find the New World we all want.

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