While skimming the news headlines of the day yesterday, the word “opportunists” popped into my mind. I then wondered how it came to be that we have so often allowed individuals who have demonstrated a conscious will to take advantage of circumstances to harm the general public.
The propensity to trust people who have little or no regard for principles nor the consequences for others is not limited to politics. We stumble across these individuals in many fields of endeavor. They show up as individuals with narcissistic behavior in interpersonal and corporate relationships. There are other opportunistic groups like less than ethical non-profits, and certain religiously affiliated organizations.
Opportunism is easy to spot once you’ve encountered it a few times. If people’s well-being is lessened or degraded by particular actions, an opportunist has had something to do with those actions. We think of opportunists as people who believe that the ends always justify the means.
The most skilled opportunists masquerade as altruists. This opportunism is often disguised as some sort of moralistic crusade. I came across this old quote by President John F. Kennedy that sparked further contemplation: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” We could interpret this quote in the conventionally positive way as seeing difficulty as an opportunity to provide benefit for all others. What we usually forget is that opportunists see dangerous situations as opportunities to take advantage of others’ misfortunes.
An opportunist uses inauspicious scenarios for her or his own self-centered purposes, while an ordinary person has altruistic motives or at least wishes to benefit others along with her/himself. A non-opportunist is inspired to act by win/win outcomes. Meanwhile, an opportunist is inspired to act in favor of win/lose outcomes. With opportunism, there will always be people who are harmed.
What is it like to succeed by using opportunity in positive ways that are unfamiliar to the opportunist? Ralph Waldo Emerson alluded to altruistic action in this verse:
“To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children,
to leave the world a better place,
to know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived,
this is to have succeeded.”
There are people who are not tempted to harness intolerance in order to benefit her/himself and a select few. There are people who do not exploit situations in order to reap windfall profits. There are a great number of people who do not lie in order to deceive their followers and believers. There are people in the world who don’t believe their personal opinions are absolute truths. There are people who do not stir up trouble in order to gain power and profit.
There are actually people who do not take advantage of our inbred faith in the goodness of others and shun personal gain.
I retain some hope that more people will see through the schemes of opportunists. Someday, perhaps the major news-makers will not be the opportunists and we’ll learn more about the altruists.