Go back with me, if you will, to a moment in your life when you were luxuriating in the beauty, virtue, and sheer joy of being selfish...
Unfortunately, if you’re like most people, the mere thought of doing something pleasurable for yourself leaves you racked with guilt, questioning your ego, and scrutinizing your self-esteem.
What happened? How can you feel such competing, conflicting and confusing emotions about the same practice?
Socialization happened. You were assimilated Borg-like, into the collective.
What a bitter tragedy that is, because selfishness is your moral prerogative as a human. And selfishness is a necessity not just for your own prosperity, but for that of the world. Unfortunately, a huge part of socialization is about labels and tribalism. We identify the good tribes that we’re associated with, and the evil tribes that are different than us. The power of this social conditioning is almost impossible to comprehend. I spent a lot of time in Central Europe in the 90s and was amazed by the almost hereditary hate between groups such as the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. It seemed as if the mothers passed the hate to their newborn from their teats.
You learn early on in your most impressionable years, what groups you belong in and who the bad guys are. Then we do something so irrational it’s mind-boggling, yet seems perfectly lucid, logical, and normal to us: We assign the worst characteristics of the most extreme members of the other group, to everyone in it. (EX: There were petty thieves looting during the protests, so that means all Black Lives Matter supporters are violent criminals.) Then you assign the best characteristics of the most extreme members of your tribe to yourself and the rest of your group. (EX: Mother Teresa did saintly work, so all Christians must be saints.) When you break down the process this way, you can understand how quickly things can jump off the track.
Now let’s apply this process to selfishness…
You’ve already been socialized that selfishness is bad and people who practice it are therefor in the evil group. Then you find the extremists and apply their worst characteristics to the whole group. So you probably label all the people in that group as being stingy, arrogant, without empathy or concern for others. We’ve all met “selfish people” who appear to have no regard for anyone but themselves. Now that you've got the right labels for them, you can dismiss them with the proper disdain. But a deeper look exposes the faulty correlation being made.
President Donald Trump may be more wrapped up in himself than any other human being on earth. That makes it easy to conclude that self-absorbed, rich guys are selfish, as half the country appears to have done. But that misses the reality that Trump is not driven by selfishness, but malignant narcissism. His lack of concern for anyone else is actually one of the symptoms of his illness.
The late financier Jeffrey Epstein is another example. A wealthy man jetting to his private island and homes all over the world, living a hedonistic life of sexual predation, his apparent lack of concern for the consequences to his victims seems to be a perfect example of extreme selfishness. But that assumption negates the more logical conclusion, simply that he was a sociopath pedophile and no regard for others is one of the many symptoms that sickness.
In each case we overlooked the obvious mental illness to focus on behavioral tendencies that fit our preconceived narrative, then assigned them to the entire group we consider as selfish. And we do this all the time.
On the other hand, if you think either of the examples used are being unfairly portrayed, it’s likely you consider yourself in the same group as they are. If so, you transfer what you see as the best qualities of the most extreme people in the group and applied them to the example, as well as yourself. (EX: People who believe Trump is a magnanimous guy who donates his presidential salary to make America great again, or Epstein was a generous benefactor who simply liked to date younger women.)
The consensus groupthink of selfishness today seems to be that it is an egoistic concern for your own interests, without regard for others. There is a pejorative association in this definition because of the final part, ‘without regard for others.’ But is that definition true?
Most people have accepted this concept that selfishness means you have no regard or concern for the needs of others. A deeper analysis reveals this doesn’t mean that you are doing harm to others, that you wish them harm, or are impervious to their struggles. It’s unfortunate that so many people have chosen to accept this definition, because it clouds the beauty of an important and spiritual practice: It hints at the deeper meaning that you are well adjusted and sensible enough to meet your own needs first.
This belief also abandons perhaps the important part of having regard for others – the actual ability to provide help when they need it. If that seems unlikely to you, it’s because you’re not aware of a very important correlation. That is:
Generosity is born from selfishness.
Because you can’t be generous of anything you don’t possess. Put in the simplest context, if your own needs aren’t being met – you’re no good to anyone else. This isn’t a message that has reached enough people of consciousness. They have been led astray by their conditioning. Let’s look at some of the memes and themes regarding selfishness and selflessness:
“One thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”
- Albert Schweitzer
“Service to a just cause rewards one with more real happiness and satisfaction than any other venture of life.”
- Carrie Chapman Catt
“No one has learned the meaning of life until he has surrendered his ego to the service of his fellow men.”
— Beran Wolfe
The statements above – and thousands more similar to them – are accepted by many as evidence for the benefits of selflessness. I believe they actually demonstrate that service to others is an inherently selfish behavior – for the self-seeking joy it provides you.
Parents make sacrifices for their children all the time. (Even pet owners exhibit the same dynamic.) You probably put the needs of your significant other over your own from time to time. (Or at least I hope you do.) But these cases are also great demonstrations of the selfish joy you can receive by caring for others. And that’s a beautiful thing.
However, if you continually subjugate your own needs for others, or believe your purpose in life is only to serve others, there is probably a co-dependents anonymous chapter created in your honor…
Relinquishing your happiness for the sake of others, verifies to yourself, and others, that you are small and unworthy of even your own attention. It’s actually anti-humanity, and it makes you mentally ill. Your survival and your pursuit of happiness must form the foundation of your value system. To make your life, by your own standards, for your own fulfillment and enlightenment.
Don’t expect most of the people in your world to agree with this or even understand it. (If you don’t believe me, use the social media share buttons above for this post and see for yourself!) They will maintain that your moral imperative is to sacrifice yourself for the greater good. (Usually theirs.) But while it sounds noble, this practice is harmful to you. And anything harmful to the individual is actually detrimental to society as a whole. Please don’t ever give up on your own dreams for someone else. There is nothing noble, spiritual or good about that, and it ultimately leads to bitterness and resentment. And someone that truly loves you will never ask you to do that.
If your main purpose in life is to serve others, or even to serve your god – there are two possible origins for the situation:
The first possibility is that you’re trying to pour from an empty cup. You bought into the memes about selfishness, and never made yourself a priority. As a result, you probably have an extremely low opinion of yourself, and suffer from worthiness issues and imposter syndrome. You are desperately trying to help everyone but yourself, to signal your virtue to others, in a futile attempt to develop positive self-esteem. People who live this way are not noble, benevolent, and spiritual. They’re crazy. Because this type of existence renders you unfit to maintain a healthy relationship or look after your own needs for emotional wellbeing and survival. There are no happy endings here; this road usually leads to breakdown, addiction, or suicide.
Possibility number two is where you want to live. Because you recognize the virtues of selfishness and acted on them, you prioritized getting your needs met first. You probably got the money thing out of the way, set healthy boundaries for others, and made it a practice to take care of your health. By doing so, you built an inventory of tangible prosperity: physical, mental, and emotional. Now, if you desire, you’re able to dedicate a sizable portion of your life (or even the bulk of it), to serving others and/or your god. You get to daily experience the selfish joy this service brings you.
As you can see, I hope you help the less fortunate, have compassion for others, and do serve the greater good. But it’s important you understand the process where you actually can be a worthwhile resource and have the desired effect. Please look again at the two possibilities above and ask yourself what would happen if everyone lived by one philosophy or the other. Which group will provide the greatest gifts to the world? And which world you would rather live in?