“A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses.” ~ Oscar Wilde
Selfishness, the way we are taught it, seems pretty straightforward: it is about acting or doing out of one’s own interest; or keeping good things for oneself. It’s about putting yourself first, lookin’ out for “number 1” – which miraculously in this case, means you.
Most importantly, it is all this with a derogatory undertone: being selfish is an ugly thing to be. That’s clear. But do we understand why?
Why is it unseemly or unsightly to put yourself first? Why is it bad to keep something good for yourself? Why indecent to serve yourself first? Why is it unbecoming to oneself, and unpleasant to others, to be important to oneself, even more important to oneself than others, even the most important thing in one’s life? It sounds disreputable, I know; don’t think it doesn’t strike me that way too. My question is why.
I can understand making – as if you could – yourself more important than everyone (and/or everything) else to everyone else; that is, assuming you are also the most important thing in everyone else’s life and to Life at large – I can understand that being selfish. In fact that’s not selfish so much as it is short-sighted, narcissistic and/or egotistical, as well as seriously optimistic.
But what about being the most important thing to yourself?
Let’s back up a little: what about just making yourself as important as everyone else – again, even if just to you. Does this strike you as selfish? Is it selfish to treat yourself on par with other people? If it is selfish to count yourself as a person, and do unto yourself as you would have others do unto you, then presumably the right way is to not count yourself as a person? That is, to not treat yourself like a human being, worthy of the same rights, respect and consideration you grant all human beings? – Is that what you have to do to not be selfish? I think it’s fair to say that that makes you self-deprecating, with low self-esteem and alienated from yourself, but unselfish?
Being self-centered is part of our existential condition. We are inherently self-centered. Now that may sound inherently ‘selfish’, derogatory and untoward – but it isn’t inherently. It just means that being a subject, a human being, you experience everything through your self (i.e. yourself) – through your own eyes, your own senses, your own brain, your own experiences. That’s not rude – it’s simply what allows you to be a consciousness, to be a self at all. And, thereby, to be all the other things a self can be – e.g. compassionate and caring, as well as inconsiderate and unkind.
A big part of the misunderstanding I think comes from a lack of discernment, perhaps even a lack of distinction at all, between the ego and the self. And, accordingly, between being egocentric or ego-centered, and being self-centered or ‘selfish’. Narcissism, inflation, and the general douchebaggery our culture is trying ‘to protect’ us from are a product of ego-centeredness. I’m making a case not for the ego but for the self, in questioning the prevailing social commentary around selfishness.
How else but through acculturation could I come to believe that it is wrong of me to think of myself as more important to myself, more worthy of my own consideration than any other? Or even less, to believe that it is wrong to consider myself at all? How else could a rose – or a slug – come to feel guilty about what it is, about being what it is, and about allowing itself to be thus?
I want us to be able to take to the endeavor – simply to care about and to care for ourselves – without shame. Not least because, as I said before, it is pretty much our background, go-to state to be ‘selfish’ and ‘self-centered’ in this way: to be the subject of your life – not an object in everyone else’s. Again, that is not rude; it is just what allows you to be a subject, a self, at all. And therefore also what allows you to be all the other things a self can be – like kind, generous, even selfless too.
The truth is that we inflict a deep personal insult towards ourselves every time we express, in thought, word or deed, that we are unworthy or undeserving of our own attention. Eventually we feel this truth in some form of abandonment, rejection and/or self-loathing. It is disfiguring to ignore, marginalize or neglect our self.
It is disfiguring until we come, first, to love ourselves. That is, until I find the divinity within myself, until I consider my self (myself) sacred, and worthy of my own attention – of my own love, my own energy and resources, my own admiration and devotion, too. After we get that, we learn how to be of service to something more than ourselves. But only after because before, our service will be despite the self not through the self; and despite myself, instead of by means of it. And it is these efforts that end in contortions and disfigurations, in us feeling alone, uncomfortable, and alienated from ourselves.
It’s a dark, lonely road. Always, endlessly. Because you are nothing if not this self. And because I see ‘selfishness’ as simply actively recognizing and honoring the priority of place this self necessarily has in our lives, I vote we throw out the derogatory nature of the appellation.
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