I’ve been thinking about the meaning of the word “selfish” for a while, ever since various people hurled that insult my way. This post is about some conclusions I’ve reached. I believe it applies to marriage, friendship, family life, and online interactions.
But first, two definitions.
Selfish = Focusing on one’s own needs, wants, desires and pleasures. Not focusing on the needs, wants, desires and pleasures of others.
Selflessness = Having little to no concern for one’s own needs, wants, desires and pleasures, but showing lots of concern for the needs of others.
Now for the list.
- Everyone is selfish sometimes. Unless you are a canonized Saint or an enlightened being, then you are probably a lot like me. Sometimes you behave selfishly. Other times you behave selflessly. Refusing to admit this is both selfish and misguided.
- If you think you deserve to be canonized as a Saint, then you are selfish. The desire to have others know you, revere you, and recognize you is a self-focused desire. You will be truly selfless if someone offers to canonize you and you turn down that offer by saying, “Oh, no, this other person deserves it and would benefit from that a lot more than I would. Please give this other person the honor. I do not deserve it or need it.” This holds true for any title of recognition.
- It’s selfish to call someone else selfish. By accusing others of being selfish, you are attempting to bring others down and peg and yourself up a peg. This is, by nature, a self-focused action. You are motivated by concern for your own reputation and not by your concern for the well-being of others.
- Selflessness breeds happiness. Selfishness breeds unhappiness. If you are angry, worried, guilty, frustrated, depressed, envious, or jealous, you are probably focusing on yourself and your own needs and not on the needs of others. As soon as you stop focusing on yourself and start focusing on others, you will find that your negative feelings evaporate.
- Selflessness can be scary. That’s why so few people manage to act selflessly all of the time. It requires a huge amount of trust and vulnerability. We are often our most selfish when we are terrified.
- If you think some people deserve your help, but others don’t, there’s still a lot of selfish in you. It’s only once you can love every living being equally—no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, or political party—that you will have completely transcended selfishness.
- Sometimes it’s selfless to be selfish. If you completely neglect your own needs and drain yourself dry, there will be no you left to focus on the needs of others. It is selfless to make sure you get enough rest, for instance. It’s easier to be selfless when you are rested, healthy, fit and well fed.
- Sometimes it’s seemingly selfish to be selfless. In focusing on the needs of many others, you might have to neglect the needs of a few. The few who are neglected might selfishly accuse you of being selfish. As long as your actions were focused on helping others, this is not true. The ones who accuse you of being selfish are actually the ones who are selfish as they are the ones who are concerned about their own needs.
- It’s selfless to forgive people for calling you selfish. After all they can’t learn how to be selfless unless they have role models like you to emulate. Also, as I mentioned, they are scared. If you respond to their show of selfishness with selflessness, you will show them what true courage looks like.
What do you think it means to be selfish? How do you use the word? Who do you accuse of being selfish and why? Who do you admire as embodying “selflessness” and why? Why do you think humans tend to call other humans “selfish”? What motivates it? What can you do to foster more selflessness in your marriage and life in general?