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.


7 thoughts on “Unity

  1. Rev. Bob says:

    I expect you’ve read Baier’s “The Moral Point of View” several times, but I think of his emphasis on morality as not something you have but something you do was spot on. I saw that echoed in what you wrote.

    I wish you or anybody would teach me about how philosophy and theology are terrific for thinking about things but might be suspect for thinking about processes. If that’s so.

    What I’m seeing all around me are processes, but I haven’t got much of a framework to hang them on.

  2. Rev. Bob says:

    I’m pretty sure I’ve told this already. I live in Huntsville AL and I am a rocket scientist.

    What you’re talking about is harder.

  3. purtek says:

    Actually, I haven’t read it at all, though it’s been on my list (it’s a long damn list)…maybe I’ll move it up. Help me with the thinking refinery.

    I’m kind of intrigued by your distinction between “things” and “processes” philosophically speaking…I don’t think I’ve thought of it that way before, but I’d have to consider it when my brain is not in night-shift mode…why is it your instinct to say it’s the case?

    I think I missed the “rocket scientist” thing. While in my mind it’s AWESOME, I’m sure it gets tiresome when your area of expertise is such a common trope in conversation.

  4. I am deeply puzzled about the whole area of altruism versus selfishness. I know that personally I am capable of both and that I may follow an unselfish action with an almost immediate selfish one. Thus, I spontaneously give money and a smile to one beggar but ignore the next. Here in Budapest there are so many beggars that I find it too disturbing to acknowledge them all. Is this selfish? I suspect it is, but it is also the only way that I can prevent myself from internally weeping and feeling overwhelmed by the level of human misery. Despair is not a helpful emotion. Is my perceived need to protect myself from it selfish? Probably. But I need to remain sane and functional.

    I am no longer a Christian and do not subscribe to the good/evil, right/wrong, selfish/unselfish dualities. Self-examination is always useful but there comes a point when I have to accept that my motives for any action are mixed – that selfishness and altruism are both present and the relative proportions will always be in flux. If I am feeling healthy and happy, there is a good chance that i will act with spontaneous altruism. However, if I am feeling unwell and miserable I am very likely to shut the door on the world and revel in my own misery.

    I remember reading an account of heroism in the trenches of the Great War – perhaps it was in “Goodbye to all that” by Robert Graves, I really cannot remember. The incident for which the writer was commended and, I think, decorated was undertaken in the the spirit of a drunken undergraduate prank. On another day, I am convinced, the same person might have behaved as a craven coward. We are always in flux – the elements of selfishness and altruism jockeying for prominence. It is often pure chance that determines how others judge us.

    This is called being human and I have no problems with it. My motives are mixed and so, I believe, are the motives of all others. This is not sophistry but a fact of human existence. Perhaps what matters is not really the purity of intention but the pragmatic nature of the outcome. There have been many times in my life when I have had to rely on the charity of others. I neither know nor care why they gave to me. I am just glad they did.

  5. purtek says:

    Brian…I can so relate to what you’re saying about the beggars…and the need to remain sane and functional. I’m exactly like that walking down the street, varying from one minute to the next whether I’m feeling responsive to the world or whether I’m not. And I do think that when I’m closing myself into my own little ball of misery, pretending like I’m an isolated entity with no connection to the rest of humanity/the world, I am being “selfish”…in a way that ultimately hurts me, because reveling in my own misery, resentment, self-pity and self-righteousness has certainly never led to a damn bit of joy in my life.

    I don’t want to say that in a hyper-critical way, though, because I think it’s just the natural instinct to go in that direction, and all I can do is try my best to push through it whenever I’m there. Like you said, in flux…and I’d consider myself a pretty pragmatic person, as well, spiritually speaking anyway, because I think that for the giver, the intention does matter and will produce a different practical effect if it’s done “selfishly”.

    This is becoming very stream-of-consciousness, when really the main point was that I really liked your comment, and I could probably talk about this subject for days. 🙂

  6. Only right wing Christians are considered “serious” Christians, I’ve noticed. Obama and Biden can say they are Christians until the proverbial cows come home, but for some reason, their faith really won’t be taken as seriously as someone who is overbearing about it.

    See, to me, if you have a lot of faith, you don’t NEED to be overbearing. In my own life, I am usually lacking faith whenever I get pushy about it. When I am secure in my faith, I have no need to tell anyone about theirs.

  7. purtek says:

    Yeah, the thing that struck me about the statement (in my other post) wasn’t so much that Obama and Biden weren’t considered “serious” Christians, but that their very declaration of Christianity was an affront to the Christian faith.

    I totally agree with the relationship between lacking faith and getting pushy…I’m hoping to get around to posting something later this morning on exactly that’s been rattling around my head for a while…unfortunately, my dishes are being very very pushy, as they seem to lack the faith that I am *ever* going to do them.

    Glad you’re still hanging about here, Daisy, despite my brutal lack of net-presence these days.

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