“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