As I suppose may be obvious by now, I spend a lot of time thinking about selfishness, from both a “practical” and a spiritual perspective. I think, on the whole, that selfishness is both a lot more complicated and a lot simpler than is immediately apparent. I don’t think there’s a checklist somewhere of actions (or people) that are Selfish and actions (or people) that are Not Selfish, creating conveniently obvious binary hierarchies between childless/mother, Christian/atheist, liberal/conservative, feminist/nonfeminist, male/female etc etc and so forth. I also don’t think that actions can be easily dismissed as selfish because they show some benefit to the individual who performs them – or, for that matter, deemed unselfish because they involve some pain for that individual.
No matter how much I try, it still grates me to hear “it’s okay to be selfish”. I know where it’s coming from, especially in a feminist context, since accusations of selfishness are often leveled at women as higher rates of self-sacrifice are demanded. I do know and hate that particular weapon. But I’ve also heard “it’s my turn to be selfish” – or variations like “I deserve it” – used as just as powerful a weapon, used to hurt people and make excuses not to examine one’s own actions. I’m not interested in a debate about whether genuine altruism is or is not possible, because it inevitably begins and ends with the “gotcha” position of pointing out that when someone does something generous for no apparent gain, they clearly get the gain of the warm fuzzy feeling of having done something for no apparent gain. Sure, okay. Fine. Don’t really see what that has to do with anything, sophistry notwithstanding.
A couple of words seem to come up extremely frequently in both my academic and my spiritual reading (or my brain is in such a state right now as to notice these words repeating themselves. Whichever): unity and solidarity. Spiritually and politically, solidarity strengthens. Divide and conquer and whatnot. Capitalism not only pits individuals against each other in competition for wealth, it also creates this pervasive myth of merit, having earned our material possessions as well as our personal worth. This is mine, it can’t be shared.
I feel like I’m writing “all I need to know I learned in kindergarten”, but while none of this is new, my point is that it’s all connected. My point is that selfishness doesn’t come down to gaining vs. not gaining and unselfishness can’t be summed up as giving something up (stuff/time/pleasure, whatever). Selfishness is about setting the self apart, acting in division rather than in unity, living first and foremost as an individual rather than as part of a whole. In Christian terms, the whole is how we as the church make up the body of Christ (based in my very limited understanding of Christian terms), but there’s lots of other frameworks saying the same damn thing. Thomas Merton describes individualism as spiritual pride, saying “The man who lives in division is not a person but only an ‘individual'”. Selfishness here isn’t really about stuff or about charity or about taxable donations. It’s about creating a separation between self and other, about living in order to create that separation, that hierarchy, that superiority, whatever its terms (financial, moral, political, sexual, spiritual). It’s the antithesis of unity and of peace.
I can’t get okay with selfishness. I know that some people use the “it’s okay to be selfish” line when they mean “I need to take care of myself before I can take care of everyone else”, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I actually think it’s selfish to take care of others in order to be recognized as the philanthropic businessman, as the self-sacrificing mother, as the fine upstanding churchgoer. Motivation plays a huge role here in how I see it, but not just for abstract philosophical purposes, because I think that ultimately, the prideful, self-aggrandizing motivation has to shake loose and will end up causing harm. The self-seeking drive is the divisive one, the one that tries to set self apart from other. By definition it has to break apart.
As usual, not rocket science. But sometimes I think rocket science is easier.