There are a lot of people out there that seem to think that they are selfless, or that many of their actions are. That kind of thinking can be as harmful as it is delusional, and it’s important to realize that most productive and intelligent people have a healthy view of their own selfish nature. It’s also important to realize that it isn’t just muddled thinking that leads to selfish people viewing themselves as selfless; this country has always been a little shaky on the definitions of those words. It’s no wonder that so many Americans are confused as to what these words mean, when they get used improperly so often.
Most dictionaries tell us that selfish people act in their own best interest, with little or no thought given to the consequences of those actions. I was a little shocked when I first read something like that, since one part of the sentence is totally contradictory to the other. Anyone who has ever deliberately endeavored to act in their own best interest knows that consequences always have to be considered. If you don’t consider the consequences of your actions, you aren’t acting in your own best interest; the two are, quite obviously, inextricably connected.
A better definition might be offered up, and we could say that selfish people are slaves to their own programming. No matter how obvious the rewards are for thinking long-term, instant gratification can turn the most intelligent among us into self-sabotaging morons in the moment. But that isn’t acting in your own best interest, so it isn’t selfish.
We can even argue that there is a difference between short-term and long-term self-interest, but the argument fizzles out when we really look at it. It turns out that self-interest must be considered in both the short and the long term, if it is to truly serve the individual. Examples of acting in one’s own short-term best interest are usually examples of that self-sabotage we mentioned earlier; it doesn’t make sense to call it acting in your own best interest if it’s not, and calling it short-term doesn’t change the definition of self-interest.
So, we’re right back where we started, with an emotionally charged word floating around in our world whose definition contradicts itself.
And we haven’t even talked about ‘selfless’ yet.
A selfless person puts others first, behaving with little or no regard for themselves. That’s another slippery one, since a truly selfless person would not eat until the whole world was fed…they may exist, but not for long. Besides, the only way they got to the point of making that decision was by being selfish enough to at least put food in their mouth from time to time; barring divine intervention, a truly selfless person has a shelf life of one or two months at the outside. If we make sure everyone in the world has clean drinking water before us, we’ll never even make it that long. The only way to provide for others is to be so selfish that our efforts create abundance, and our own long-term becomes so secure that we want to help others enjoy that security as well.
It doesn’t do any good to have high-minded ideals that demand that other people finance them; that’s a whole other brand of selfishness, one that borders on delusional. If you can’t finance your idea, it isn’t really your idea. It really isn’t helpful to the people bearing the burden, either.
That’s how we have to look at these words, in turns out; there are degrees of both selfishness and selflessness in all of us, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get confused about which is which.
Take parents, for example. The only reason we have a shortage of virtually every natural resource is because a large group of people don’t realize that one of the most selfish things a person can do in an overpopulated world is become a parent. Although villages and family models continue to disappear under the crush of their progress, more children are born every year than the year before. Hopeful analysts project that it will slow down, someday…but there’s no proof that it will happen in time, or that it will happen at all. It’s up to the people to control the population, and we are quite frankly doing a terrible job of it.
In the western world, most folks know about a fellow that is said to have walked the Earth a couple thousand years ago or so. He is also said to have coined some pretty popular phrases, but it’s hard to tell; it’s all been edited and translated a bunch of times since being written down. I bring up the Christian messiah here to make a point, since he’s such a great example.
Many people consider the life that Jesus led to be the ultimate example of unselfishness, or at least one of them. That’s only true from the perspective of the people that came after, though. His parents had to explain to everyone why their son was not taking a wife, fathering children or taking up a trade. People were in short supply back then, and the decree to ‘go forth and multiply’ meant something to humanity as a whole. The most selfish thing a guy could do was put all these responsibilities aside, and go searching for his own best self.
Yet that’s what he did, and thank God for that.
If you believe that sort of thing.
If you don’t, you can still surely see my point. The only way to judge an action or a person as selfish or selfless is to judge from a perspective that is, by the act of being a perspective, selfish. When we want people to meet our expectations of them, we’re being selfish…even if we expect them to act selflessly.
Or perhaps especially when we want them to act selflessly.
It’s a healthy thing, to want to help others. Just remember that the biggest donations generally come from the richest people, and they have no trouble admitting that both their lifestyle and their ability to make a difference come from the drive to fulfill their own deepest desires and make their biggest dreams come true.
Is that selfish, or selfless?
Hang on, let me grab my dictionary…
Oh, never mind.
Back when I had no good reason to write a blog, I started writing one anyway. In it, I went over old journal entries I had written years ago and pointed out all the things I agreed or disagreed with. It took me a number of posts to cover the topic of ‘Selfish and Selfless’, when it came up; if you want to check it out you can click on the links below.
In those posts, I went into the way selfish changes as our perspective does, and how we could all benefit by seeing the world as something we need to share instead of something we have to fight over. This lesson was brought to my attention in a very real way recently, when my family was evacuated because of some problems with a dam upstream. As a former resident of Montana, I know how a lot of folks outside of California view the people that live within its borders. I wasn’t surprised to hear that plenty of opinions were being expressed about how the state could go away and no one would mind.
A little research revealed that California is not the only state that is in danger of losing some if its valuable infrastructure; and a little more research revealed that the state most likely to help the other states deal with this problem is actually the one so many people would be happy to see slip quietly into the ocean.
We’ll talk about that next week, in a post called…
You guessed it!
‘That’s a big dam problem!’
Thanks for reading!
All the best,