Naturally Selfish

Selfishness is that detestable vice which no one will forgive in others, and no one is without himself.Henry Ward Beecher

I’m sure you’ve heard the common response that a person who contemplates suicide or attempts suicide is partaking in the ultimate of selfish acts. This has always  felt harsh to me, condemning the person who was or is experiencing such excruciating emotional and or physical pain that they want to end their own life. I have been on both sides of  that coin, losing a loved one to suicide and also as a person who has attempted suicide in the past. I can tell you, from my perspective, that it is a definitively selfish state to be in, when you are so completely robbed of hope that you desire your own death. But, it is also not a purposefully selfish act or at least, I believe, that the person who is in that state of irrational thought is simply unable to comprehend the consequences of their actions at that time.

This topic in general, along with some personal recent events has brought to my mind the whole concept of selfishness and how we as a human race define it, live by it, and how it serves us.

First off, we need to be on the same page and understand how we are defining selfishness, there is actually a lot of gray area when you start to philosophically discuss and ponder the word itself. For the sake of this post, we will go with the common definition of selfishness as: the act of placing one’s own needs or desires above the needs or desires of others.

If you are a parent, you have more than likely been given the opportunity to watch as your sweet child developed from infancy. It doesn’t take long to notice that this newborn is only capable of voicing his or her needs and isn’t too concerned about anyone elses. In fact, I’m not sure at what point a child actually develops the ability to control their desires well, but it is years before they seem to display any selfless act on their own and without coercion from a parent.

In my experience, we have to mindfully and methodically teach our children how not to be selfish. It seems as if it is instinctual, then, to be selfish in nature and from birth, until we learn that there are sometimes benefits of foregoing a certain desire or need. We as parents are often shown how strongly a child feels about their own needs when we are given the chance to teach the concept of sharing for the first time, the second time, and for many times past, until the concept becomes a part of our child’s own resources. Sharing and being self-less by giving up a prized possession is often met with great and passionate resistance. In fact, as an adult, I too have experienced a feeling of great resistance when the need has arisen to let go of a much loved possession.

So, it seems, that being selfish is part of our nature. We might have been designed to be selfish to a certain extent for the purpose of self-preservation. In some obvious circumstances you could imagine the need for selfishness in order to provide food, clothing and shelter for yourself and your family.

Here is where my own questions on the topic led me today . . . does coming to this conclusion, that we are created selfish or at least born selfish, mean that when we are put under great stress or trauma we might be more susceptible to behaving and making choices in a selfish manner? And if this is true, if stress and/or trauma can cause a person to retreat and behave in a more instinctual way, then is a person to be held as accountable for these selfish acts? Are they as responsible for their actions due to the fact that it is (as I hypothesize) part of the human nature, an automatic response, per se.

I’ve heard survival stories before of people taking some extreme measures to meet their basic needs when isolated and in horrific conditions. And I for one, do not hold most people accountable for what they might have had to do to survive in the wilderness or harsh climate they were in, as they faced what seemed imminent death without making some very primitive decisions. I can’t judge what the proper response should be in those circumstances.  Therefore, can I judge a person’s behavior accurately when they are under extreme duress, even if it may not be a life-threatening matter?

Take the person who has been laid-off from their job, looking for work for months, and facing foreclosure on their home. “Selfishly” and by our definition, this person greatly desires to keep their home and to avoid at all costs being displaced from it. In our current economy, many people are faced with the option or decision to consider asking for a modification on the loan for their home. In most cases, in order for the lender to be willing to work with you, you have to prove that the income coming in currently is enough to cover your original mortgage payment. You are required to show that you can still pay your mortgage, as it is, even though you have lost your job. To me this absolutely makes no sense, for it is obvious most people who lose their jobs can no longer afford their mortgage. This requirement has led to a lot of people giving out false or misleading information to their lender in order to make an attempt to keep their home. This “selfish” act of lying in order to keep your home may not be characteristic of a lot of people under normal circumstances.  But in this circumstance, under great stress, should I judge that person for making the decision to lie? My first response is to say that they are wrong to mislead the bank, that it isn’t okay under any circumstances to take part in that kind of manipulation of facts for your own personal gain. But knowing the stress of being in a similar situation, I know that it has been quite tempting to make similar decisions. Fortunately, for me, I have been able to resist this temptation, but I’m not so sure if I have a right to be too judgmental of others who are simply acting in order to provide some basic necessities for themselves and their family.

Some other temptations are more difficult for me to resist, like a bit of self-pity every now and then. An indulgence in feeling sorry for myself, although not the smartest choice, seems to be unavoidable from time to time as we have struggled financially and with personal relationships here at my home recently. I think most people feel as if that is forgivable, but I do wonder . . . what if a person indulges in behaviors or choices that are more self-indulgent, more selfish, in an effort to make themselves feel better during stressful and sometimes traumatic times. Is this excusable? Do we offer more grace to those who are suffering during those hard times, or do we hold people to the same standards, all the time? And if a person has a “natural instinct” for self-preservation, do we write any of these selfish behaviors off to succumbing to “instinct” or a basic primitive type response to the situation. Should we if we don’t? Where do we draw the line?

Depression can certainly be seen as a self-focused state. It has been proven that when you take the focus off of yourself, it is helpful and can help you to come out of a depression. But on the contrary, it also requires some more attention to “self” to get through a difficult bout with this monster as you have to prioritize your health and well-being. You must make effective treatments a priority sometimes above other truly important needs, and often before you meet the needs of others.

As a person struggling with both depression and fibromyalgia, I have, at times, been perceived as being selfish. I often feel forced to rest rather than do household chores or must limit activities early in the day so that I can be available for the kids at a certain time later in the day. This makes sense in my brain and does not feel selfish to me, but on the outside, it can look and seem selfish because I am not able to meet the needs and expectations of others in my household or social network. How do I balance this without being selfish, how do I not place my needs above the needs of others. It is kind of like when you are on a plane and you are instructed to put on the oxygen mask first as an adult, and then on your child, isn’t it?

Or ponder this: a person may resort to other behaviors or vices when going through a very stressful time in order to self-medicate. They may do or partake in things that could be considered “selfish” but at that moment they are satisfying a need for themselves. Maybe a need to feel loved, to fill an emptiness inside them, or the need to feel valued and special. Is this wrong? Is it immoral? What if they are simply acting out of instinct? Trying desperately to fill a void in their life or relationship that is lacking?

I know I am ignoring and hinting at some obvious lines and boundaries that most people would say we should not cross in any situation. I am aware that I am leaving out the arguments for the “other side”. I am hoping to stir up our minds and thoughts on this topic, as I am indulging my curiosity today, maybe a little selfishly?

I wonder if we should offer each other a little more grace during tough times. Maybe being a little selfish isn’t all bad.

It would be fun to hear your responses, as I am on a bit of a philosophical journey here with this topic, and my 4 year old just isn’t up for the debate today!
The force of selfishness is as inevitable and as calculable as the force of gravitation.Hailliard

9 thoughts on “Naturally Selfish

  1. You’ve touched on something very special here ~ for anyone in their lives ~ offer others the opportunity to be themselves and look for the signs that maybe, just maybe there is much more going on than we know. Being selfish is part of our nature ~ that doesn’t mean that it has to be a negative aspect of our lives, we just need to know that within ourselves we can learn and grow and use that natural selfishness to be a better person; for ourself, our family, friends and others.

    If you see someone you think is being selfish, what could be going on in his/her life? Are they enduring a hardship we couldn’t possibly imagine or understand even if we knew? Let’s take off our rose-tinted glasses, who knows what we will see then.

    Absolutely wonderful entry Amy! Keep us questioning and looking to be the best we can be!

    Suzanne 🙂

    • Suzanne,
      Thank you so much for your input and for commenting! This post is unique in that it is a different approach than what I usually take and it is a different type of topic in some ways, but it still plays in to my goal of becoming a person who LIVES life well in spite of challenges, including chronic pain, depression, etc. All people have challenges and all of us need to find balance in our lives. All of us, no matter what our spiritual beliefs are, have in us some basic “instincts” that are undeniable. We are all fallible, and yet, I think most of us strive to seem infallible. I think that if we look a little bit deeper and are less quickly to judge, ourselves and others, we can see that often our choices, good and bad, come from something deep within that like you said could be a “hardship we couldn’t possibly imagine or understand even if we knew”. I think we all need to try our best to be compassionate towards each other, and to ourselves, even when we may have “messed up” or made a choice that seems bad in retrospect. Sometimes, there are strong forces at work, and sometimes they can work against us. . .
      Just wanting to explore the ways in which we judge others and ourselves, hoping to come to a better understanding of myself in the process!
      Thank you for your support and input my friend.
      Amy

  2. Anytime I hear someone talk about suicide as a selfish act, I know that the person just doesn’t get it. And good for them to have never felt the worst depression has to offer. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, not even if it would bring understanding.

    Your theory about reverting to early development in a time of severe stress is interesting and one I haven’t heard before. I don’t know about you, but when I have been at the brink of suicide, I was so far from thinking rationally that I sometimes thought it would be a selfLESS act to rid people of the burden of having to deal with me.

    For anyone reading this who thinks the world is better off without them, it isn’t so, and you are not the exception to that statement! Depression can rob us of clear perception and help is available.

    • Dannette,
      I couldn’t agree with you more, on all points! When I have been in that horrible place, I have felt with full conviction that I would be relieving others of pain, not burdening them with more. It is part of the illness when it reaches that point, that twists our thoughts into a complete distortion of reality. I believe that when someone is suicidal, they just can’t grasp reality as most people feel it . . . and that can even be so when someone is depressed and not suicidal. It is of the utmost importance for people to know that they can get to the other side of those thoughts, and help for them is available.
      1-800-273-TALK is one place to start.
      Thanks Dannette!
      Amy

  3. Hi,
    I wanted to comment last night and couldn’t quite pull my thoughts together. You bring up some interesting points. First that depression and suicide are often more complex and it is not fair or wise to judge quickly. For people to label it as a selfish act is to over simplify to an extreme.

    The other important point that we all need to think about is what does it mean to take care of ourselves in healthy ways so that we are able to function? When parents take a flight in an airplane with their children they are told that in case of emergency, they are to put the oxygen mask on themselves first and then on their children second. That is not selfish – it just makes good sense. I think the analogy holds true for mental and physical health. We need to take care of our basic survival needs or we cannot function. That is where wisdom comes in. We have to learn what the basic building blocks of our physical, mental and spiritual health are and then develop some life habits to keep ourselves healthy. If we work at those things we will not get depleted and will be able to function well. We can learn from counselors and friends how to identify and develop these skills.

    I know I have to take breaks and limit the amount of time I spend on cleaning because of my illness. It may look like on the outside that I am lazy but I have learned my limits of what I should and should not do in a given day and have learned to accept that. I have also learned that gentle persuasion and quiet perseverance eventually gets the message through to most people. I know there are some who will never understand and will persist in judging but I pray for grace to let that go and not worry about it.

    You brought up some other good points and questions. I wish I could comment more but will have to quit for now. I want to encourage you to keep writing and keep thinking about these things – this is so important for all of us to learn.

    God bless you!
    Patti

  4. Hey Amy! Good post; really had me thinking!

    It reminded me… of the discovery of the “selfish gene.” I know enough about neuroscience and the brain to PRETEND like I know what I’m talking about… but I totally don’t. I want to study it more though- completely facinates me!

  5. Hi Amy,

    Good questions to ponder. For me there is really only one place where I can find the answers to these kind of questions. My own philosophical thinking or that of other human beings will get me into trouble. I have to look the Maker and Creator of mankind for answers I can feel sure of to these and other questions. You asked, “Where do we draw the line?” Well, I don’t think WE do. If you ask me, I don’t think WE can even begin to judge how to draw the line fairly. So, God in His infinite Wisdom has given us the Book of Life by which we can find some “sure” answers.

    So, here’s how I understand what God has to say on some of what you bring up.

    Leviticus 19:1 God spoke to Moses: 2 “Speak to the congregation of Israel. Tell them: Be holy because I, God, your God, am holy. 9 “When you harvest your land, don’t harvest right up to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings from the harvest. 10 Don’t strip your vineyard bare or go back and pick up the fallen grapes. (DON’T BE SELFISH) Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am God, your God.

    11 “Don’t steal. “Don’t lie. “Don’t deceive anyone. 12 “Don’t swear falsely using my name, violating the name of your God. I am God. 13 “Don’t exploit your friend or rob him. “Don’t hold back the wages of a hired hand overnight. 14 “Don’t curse the deaf; don’t put a stumbling block in front of the blind; fear your God. I am God. 15 “Don’t pervert justice. Don’t show favoritism to either the poor or the great. Judge on the basis of what is right. 16 “Don’t spread gossip and rumors. “Don’t just stand by when your neighbor’s life is in danger. I am God. 17 “Don’t secretly hate your neighbor. If you have something against him, get it out into the open; otherwise you are an accomplice in his guilt. 18 “Don’t seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people. “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God.”

    There is a vast difference between judging a PERSON and judging a behavior. The fact is that we certainly judge some behaviors as WRONG, whether a person calls it sin or “instinct”, or something else. A pedophile might could say they “just have this “instinct” to rape little children” or “to be drawn to teenage girls”. But we don’t accept that as a excusable behavior. People don’t come to the pedophiles rescue by saying, “Gosh, I really feel sorry for the pedophile because he just couldn’t help himself in this situation. He is just “wired” that way.” Even if we can understand it that way we don’t allow it to be his EXCUSE.

    There is a BIG difference between UNDERSTANDING why a person would be tempted to act selfishly, and EXCUSING the selfish behavior.

    I can offer a person compassion without somehow saying that their act of complete selfishness is excusable. I can understand their struggle. I can have empathy. Those are all excellent gifts to offer the sinner. But, for me, we cross the line when we justify the selfish act of another human being. When we make excuses for them we fail to LOVE them. I think often our need to find an excuse for another’s sin is so that maybe we can hope another will excuse us in that same act.

    All of us want to somehow feel justified in our sin. But the TRUTH is there is no justification for it. It would be terribly SELFISH of me to tell you that there is ever a just reason to “lie” or an excuse to use a “vice” of some kind (other than GOD) to fill the empty places in your heart that are needing to feel loved. It would be me trying not to confront the truth for fear of you becoming angry with me.

    There is NO JUSTIFCATION for sin.

    There IS FORGIVENESS of sin.

    Forgiveness that I can offer to the person who tries to commit suicide in a fragile state of deep depression.

    Forgiveness for the person who chooses to take up a vice (drinking, drugs, sex, Internet porn, an on-line affair, the pedophile, and on and on and on and on) while going through a difficult time in life.

    Forgiveness for the person who steals my purse because their babies are hungry or for the addict who robs my house because they are going through withdrawal from crack cocaine.

    Forgiveness for the woman who pulls a gun and kills on her abusive husband.

    Forgiveness for the man who has an affair behind my bestgirlfriends back.

    Forgiveness for the friend who gossips.

    FORGIVENESS. It is very different than JUSTIFICATION.

    I think there may be some confusion for some people about what caring for oneself is in comparison with “selfishness”. As Patti stated – “We need to take care of our basic survival needs or we cannot function. That is where wisdom comes in. We have to learn what the basic building blocks of our physical, mental and spiritual health are and then develop some life habits to keep ourselves healthy”

    This is not being SELFISH…in fact it is the polar opposite of being selfish. We do these things to take care of our SPIRIT, SOUL, and BODY so that we can be MORE in our communities…not less. That is not selfish. That is selfLESSness. Being all that I can be because I have taken the very best care of myself is not selfish. I need to be in the very best health I can be in in order to LOVE my children, husband, family and community.

    I’ve talked too much….again.

    • Kimberly,
      I think you have spoken real words of truth, as they are the words of the Lord and therefore speak truth to me! Thanks for expressing your thoughts so well here and for offering your wisdom as you have looked to the Bible and the Word of God for your answers to some of these big questions I have posed.

      I agree it is important to offer compassion while not excusing a persons behavior or choices, while not condoning it or saying it was okay to behave that way. We can still empathize, offer compassion and tell them lovingly that we don’t agree with their choices or behaviors, and that it was sin.

      I’m glad you “talk too much”!
      Love,
      Amy

      • I am learning that I don’t ALWAYS have to tell someone that I believe something is “sin”. The right word at the right time is POWERFUL. The wrong word at the wrong time falls on deaf ears. It is about LOVING that other person WELL. Without the Holy Spirit, I am lost for knowing the right moment to speak and even more lost to LIVING some WELL..

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