A reader writes, “Part of my childhood conditioning has been putting the interests of others before my own. I’ve also been reminded by some people of Mother Theresa, who devoted herself to helping others. She sounds like a good role model. But while her approach to life appeals to me, I don’t think it fits me completely. To put it briefly, I’ve been somewhat torn between the two extremes of looking out for myself and looking after others. I am just looking for ideas that could help me solve this problem.”
A favorite tool of manipulators is to make others feel guilty. It is a method of control. Don’t be taken in. We are not meant to follow the dictates of others. Rather, it is our nature to follow the yearnings of our own hearts. It is true that Mozarts, Picassos, and Einsteins become so obsessed with their calling that they neglect others. But who can blame them? They are trying to cram the vastness of their infinite Creator into their brief life spans. Yes, their selfish dedication to their vocations did hurt some of the people in their lives, but they more than compensated by bringing joy and wonder into the lives of countless millions of others.
On the opposite extreme, we have people like Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa who neglected themselves to serve others. Yet, as Mother Teresa toiled in the slums of Calcutta, thousands of miles away, in the comfort and luxury of his own home, a writer wrote an inspirational poem. Which task is nobler, toiling endless hours to serve the needy or sitting comfortably at home while composing a poem? It is certainly true that the destitute were in far greater need of food, shelter, and love than they were of poetry. But what did Mother Teresa need? The answer hung on the wall of her bare room. It was the poem written by a stranger. Like the words of Christ, it served as a source of inspiration and fueled her passion. Can you see how the world needs all kinds of people? Can you see how we are all important?
Imagine for a moment that the organs of my body have a consciousness of their own. My heart, for example, may be determined to become the best possible heart, my stomach, the best possible stomach, my lungs, the best possible lungs, and so on. As they pursue their special interest and try to be the best, what is the result? They unknowingly work together to create the best possible body. You see, we are merely organs in the body of humanity, and as we chase after our dreams, we create the best possible world.
It is only when all of us pursue our own interests that collectively we can express the grandeur of God. The German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 ~ 1860) had this to say, “If we were not all so excessively interested in ourselves, life would be so uninteresting that none of us would be able to endure it.” But self-interest does more than give the individual a reason for living, it also offers others inspiration, wonder, and joy. For as we use self-interest to express ourselves, we add the delightfulness and deliciousness of diversity.
Writing on this same subject and pointing out a difference between selfishness and unselfishness, Oscar Wilde (1856 ~ 1900) had this to say, “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live; it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it.”
It is a fallacy to believe that your self-interest is at odds with the interest of the community. Actually, they are two sides of the same coin. What is good for you is good for the community and vice versa. If, for example, you were to seek possessions and a comfortable place to live, you would work hard to get them. By doing so, you become independent and would not be a burden on the community. And as the community follows its interests, it taxes you to provide electricity, water, roads, and other services. You both need each other.
So, self-interest is not selfishness, unless it is excessive and harms others. In truth, self-interest is ALWAYS good, except on those occasions that it is used in an uninformed way. For example, if I wish to be rich and produce a product or service the community wants, we all benefit. I create jobs and fulfill needs while growing rich. But what if I were selfish and greedy and sold inferior products to increase my profits? Well, cheating others is NOT in my self-interest. After all, my customers would become angry, and in the long run, my business would fail. Even if I could cheat others and remain successful, it still would not be in my self-interest to do so. Why? Because cheaters cheat themselves of self-respect, happiness, and peace of mind.
Some cynics claim that all acts are selfish. Mother Teresa, they would argue, served others because of the happiness it brought her. It is true that selfless acts of kindness bring great joy to the doer and as well as the recipients; however, that joy is never the CAUSE, but only the RESULT of generosity and service. If you really believe that kind people are that way because of the joy they receive, why don’t you do as they do? If the great servants of humanity aren’t motivated by the joy they receive, what causes them to be so unselfish? The answer is one word: AWARENESS.
In our dealings with one another, there are three levels of consciousness (awareness). On the lowest level, we are like animals, and view others as rivals, competitors, and threats to our success. Such a perspective breeds selfishness. On the second level, which is spiritual, we view others as our brothers and sisters. Because of this, we cooperate with and help one another. The story that follows introduces the third level of consciousness.
The visitor walked up to the spiritual master and asked, “What is your name?” “My name,” came the reply, “used to be ME, but now it is YOU.” You see, at this level of consciousness, we realize that we are more than brothers and sisters, we are in fact the same person. We are one. Because we are one, obviously I cannot pursue my own good without pursuing yours, and I cannot serve you, without serving myself.
We should never feel guilty or ashamed of following our self-interests. Selfishness is not about pursuing your own good, but about neglecting your neighbor’s good. Yet, it is only in making ourselves better that we can help make the world better. Those who live for themselves alone, have very little to live for. That’s why we choose to help others. Not because we acquiesce to their wishes, but because we wish to reveal the splendor that lies within us. What about those that remain selfish to the end? Tertullian (160 ~ 240AD) answers that question: “He who lives only to benefit himself confers on the world a benefit when he dies.”