Everyone’s selfish. So are you.

August 4, 2006

Selfish, selfish, selfish. What an insulting thing to say to someone: “You’re selfish.”

Of course they’re selfish! Everyone’s selfish. So are you. So am I. So why is it so degrading to admit? People are finely tuned to whatever might hurt or help them. We can’t help it: it’s the way we’re built. Any creature that neglects itself lives a short life.

I remember a kid’s game where I’d try to make my friend blink. I’d flick a hand at his face, and if he blinked he lost. It was fun to play because it was hard to win. We can’t help protecting ourselves.

“But it’s bad to be selfish! We should think of the other person first.” Well, if only one of us is going to be happy, what’s the difference if it’s you or me? “You won’t go to heaven if you’re selfish.” Oh, we’re being good so we can get a big payoff? Sounds selfish to me.

“But what about all the great, selfless people of history? You know, Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, those people.” Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. These people were very selfish. They insisted on having things work out their way. They just happened to be busy with one of the deepest selfish pleasures of all: making a difference to others. What greater satisfactions are there than nurturing your kids, doing a fine job at work, helping a friend through a tough time? Or removing a beer can from a garden path, or planting a tree, or – sometimes – helping your nation be a better place?

President Gorbachov is well fed, has a beautiful wife, lots of friends, a dacha in the south, every wealth available. But his real interest is his reform program for the Soviet Union. After all, he’s already head of state: he’s got what most leaders crave. Now he can concentrate on doing some good. I’ll bet he wants to be remembered as a great reformer. Okay, so it’s a selfish desire. Got any complaints?

Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” As thyself. He didn’t expect you to drop your own interests. He wanted you to expand them to include others. There is a deep joy in doing for others. I think it’s designed that way. Besides, how far can you get if the people you live and work with aren’t happy?

When someone says, “You’re being selfish,” what they mean is, “You’re not doing it the way I want.” If they can guilt-trip you into doing it their way, fine. What can you do when you’re confronted this way? Be ingenious! Think up a way to solve the whole problem so both sides are happy. “Would you pick up Sis at five today?” “Sorry, I gotta be at the library then.” “Thanks a lot. You’re always just thinking about yourself, aren’t you?” At this point it’s tempting to tell them where to get off. Instead, try diplomacy. “I can see you’re upset about this,” you say. “So, how can we work this out so everybody’s happy?” They’re still grouchy and not much use, so you fill in. “How about I pick her up at five-twenty? We’ll warn her now so she can do some extra shopping,” or some such. That was easy! And you avoid all the moral lectures and arguments.

Let’s put away the insults and see what we can do to solve problems. Sometimes that’s hard, but we humans are an ingenious bunch. Every problem you solve serves everyone, including yourself.

Pretty selfish, eh?

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