Saturday, 3 May 2014

Can there be a right kind of selfishness?

I recently came across the following taken from "The Fear of Freedom" by Eric Fromm...

"Selfishness and Self-love"

"Selfishness is not identical with self-love but with its very opposite. Selfishness is one kind of greediness. Like all greediness, it contains an insatiability, as a consequence of which there is never any real satisfaction. Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.

Close observation shows that while the selfish person is always anxiously concerned with himself, he is never satisfied, is always restless, always driven by the fear of not getting enough, of missing something, of being deprived of something. He is filled with burning envy of anyone who might have more.

If we observe closer still, especially the unconscious dynamics, we find that this type of person is basically not fond of himself, but deeply dislikes himself.

Selfishness is rooted in this very lack of fondness for oneself. The person who is not fond of himself, who does not approve of himself, is in constant anxiety concerning his own self. He has not the inner security which can exist only on the basis of genuine fondness and affirmation. He must be concerned about himself, greedy to get everything for himself, since basically he lacks security and satisfaction.

The same holds true with the so-called narcissistic person, who is not so much concerned with getting things for himself as with admiring himself. While on the surface it seems that these persons are very much in love with themselves, they are actually not fond of themselves, and their narcissism - like selfishness - is an overcompensation for the basic lack of self-love."

It got me thinking about selfishness and self love. I have heard it said that you have to love yourself and that this is a right kind of selfishness. But is it? Is self love, selfishness as all?

"Can there ever be a right kind of selfishness?...Some people tell me so...As is often the case the first place I turned to is that "Holy Fool" Nasruddin...This tale spoke to me...

Nasruddin was once engaged in a spiritual conversation with a monk. The monk told Nasrduddin:

“I have achieved an incredible level of dis-attachment from myself—so much so that I only think of others, and never of myself.”

Now Nasruddin paused for a while and then he replied:

“Well, I have reached a more advanced state than that.”

The Monk a little surprised by the Holy Fools response asked:

“How so?”

To which Nasruddin answered:

“I am so objective that I can actually look at another person as if he were me, and by doing so, I can think of myself!“

An interesting take on the “Golden Rule”, maybe? Maybe not?

Now is Nasruddin engaging in Narcissim, in self-absorption, self-obsession here? Is it all about him? Is he displaying selfishness? Or is he unearthing an interesting truth, something that we can often miss?

When you hear the word “Selfish”, what thoughts does it conjure up in your mind?

Can there ever be a right kind of selfishness?

Generally it breeds only negative images. We are told that we should not be selfish; that it is selfishness and self-absorption that is at the root of all of society’s ills; that we need to learn to give to life and that in doing so, we all benefit. When we hear someone described as being selfish we picture only negative connotations. Selfishness is usually considered the worst kind of character flaw that we could ever suffer from.

It’s a powerful word to use to describe another. Think about the last time you were in an argument. Think about the last time you called a person “selfish”, how did they respond?

“Selfish”, it is a very powerful word indeed. A word we use often. Do we always use it appropriately?

Now before exploring whether there can ever be a right kind of selfishness I think we need to first of all understand what it means to be selfish.

Well my dictionary defines it as being “devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, etc…, regardless of others. It is “characterised by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself, to be consumed by selfish motives” It’s synonyms are as follows “ self-interested, self-seeking, egoistic; illiberal, parsimonious, stingy.”

I would also add to be selfish is to be both “greedy” and “narcissistic”

None of these sound like great qualities and not something the spiritually inclined amongst us ought be aspiring to, you would think. Well maybe, maybe not?

But is selfishness always wrong? Can there be a right kind of selfishness?

It is said that before you can give to others you need to take care of yourself. If you give too much from your cup, your well will soon become dry and you will be unable to help others. It is said that you’ve got to look after yourself first, before you can help others; it is said that there is a right kind of selfishness and that we all need it.

The aeroplane analogy is often used, which goes something like the following. If you are in an aeroplane and it gets into distress, so much so that the cabin becomes de-compressed, leading to the oxygen masks having to be deployed, before you can help anyone else you must first secure your own oxygen mask.

But is this selfishness? Is taking care of yourself, practising self-care being selfish? I’m not convinced that this is true selfishness. Of course we need to take care of ourselves if we are to be of use to anyone or anything, but is that acting selfishly? Not as I understand it. Actually I believe that that if you do not take care of yourself you are actually being selfish. Why? Well because if we do not take care of our basic human needs, it means we end up depending on others to do so for us. Now that sounds selfish to me.

I think the mistake that we often make is that we equate self-care or self-love with selfishness. Now of course there are forms of self-love “Narcissism” that are selfish, but true self love is not selfish at all. The ancient Greeks named this Philautia, which they saw as the highest form of love. They believed that without it a person could not offer the other forms of love in a positive sense.

Self-care and or self-love is not a right kind of selfishness, because it is not selfishness at all.

Does this mean that there can’t be “A right kind of selfishness” though?

What about greed itself, is greed bad? Can greed be good? Can it be the right kind of selfishness?

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of humankind and greed, you mark my words, will … save …”

These words were uttered by Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglass in the 1987 film Wall Street. The speech has often been shortened to “greed is good,” And became a philosophy for many during the 1980’s and beyond.

Is Greed good? Can greed ever be good? Well certainly Erich Fromm did not think so. Neither do the great faith traditions either. Jesus certainly saw it as an obstacle to the spiritual life. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now I don’t believe he was decrying wealth per say, more the worship of love or money, or to put it another way “Greed”, which is certainly a powerful force and master that gets in the way of one serving God.

From a Buddhist perspective “Greed” can be understood as “Desire”, perhaps the most intense form of desire. The Buddha saw desire as the root of all suffering. Judaism points to something similar. Rabbinic literature warns against the dangers of the “Yetzer ha-Ra.” This is translated as evil inclination or selfish desire or sometimes just simply desire. Illustrated in the story of Adam and Eve in which they eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, resulting in the fall from innocence and alienation from God. Lao Tzu said "Manifest plainess, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness, have few desires.

Yet there is a philosophy, perhaps even a spirituality behind “greed is good”. Some see greed as a creative force and not a destructive one. This is probably best articulated in the writing of philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand. Her work had a powerful influence over many in positions of power and came to prominence during the last American presidential elections. I remember a year or so back the Rev Bill Darlison struggling with one of her novels. He had decided he wanted to explore it in worship and was finding it hard work. I have not read anything of her work but I recently heard it described as “morally repugnant and literally weak and yet somehow deeply compelling”. I suspect that it taps into that reptilian mind in all of us. You see greed is a powerful force, it’s kind of sexy in so many ways. Greed is fuelled by “Eros.”

Eros, a different kind of love to Philautia and Agape. It is the force that drives creativity as well as desire and greed and even the will to live itself. Eros often gets a bad name it does not always deserve. The truth is that we need Eros. We need this creative force to continue creating life. We need to be careful not to cage this force. We need it just as much as we need the other forms of love. The problems arise when these forces develop beyond their proper proportions.

That said I do not believe that "Greed is good", it can easily become violent, destructive and all consuming. We only need look at most of the troubles of our world to see the horrors of greed. The recent financial crises are a direct result of it as are most of the troubles caused by expansionism. That said we need to be careful not to cage those aspects of life that lead to that glorious creative force, that can grow from within us. Without it there would be no life.

The other problem with greed and excessive individualism for that matter is that it leads to separation. In many ways it leads to us failing to see ourselves in the eyes of our brothers and sisters.

This brings me back to thoughts around “The Golden Rule”, the core principle of all good religion and philosophy. It is for me the core of everything and the true expression of God manifesting in human life, for God is love.

As I have said many times before I believe that we all live by the golden rule, we do in fact love our neighbour as we love ourselves. The problem being that often we do not truly recognise the love we are created from. We can feel shame about loving ourselves. We somehow see this as being selfish, when that is the last thing that it is. In fact philautia, self-love, is essential to truly loving our neighbours as the very same children of love, children of God that we ourselves are. By failing to love ourselves we are actually separating ourselves from the rest of the creative life. We need to respect and celebrate our own beautiful uniqueness in order to recognise this in others.

We need to let go of the idea that loving ourselves truly as we, warts and all and beauty spots too is in any sense a selfish act. Please remember that a selfish person is interested only in himself wants everything for herself; can see nothing but her or himself. A selfish person does not love herself too much, but too little. You see the truth is that a truly selfish person is incapable of loving others because they are seemingly unable to love themselves.

To truly love yourself is to follow that greatest commandment, it is to acknowledge that love is at the root of all that we are. If we do not love ourselves, then we cannot love our neighbour.

Parker Palmer said that:

“Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.”

Taking care of ourselves, emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually is not a selfish act. In fact I would suggest to not do so is actually more like selfishness as we usually understand it. It is our responsibility in fact to take care of the life we have been given. Each life is unique and is there to be used for the purpose of all. To truly achieve this we need to take care of ourselves and to express our joy in life. You see to be joyful, to be happy, is to express all that you are; to be all that you can be is neither selfish or greedy, it is a true expression of love in all its forms.

It is what we are here for and it inspires others to love both themselves and each other.

I’m going to end with this wonderful little quote I recently came across by Gretchin Rubin from “The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, read Aristotle, and generally Have More Fun”

“The belief that unhappiness is selfless and happiness is selfish is misguided. It's more selfless to act happy. It takes energy, generosity, and discipline to be unfailingly light-hearted, yet everyone takes the happy person for granted. No one is careful of his feelings or tries to keep his spirits high. He seems self-sufficient; he becomes a cushion for others. And because happiness seems unforced, that person usually gets no credit.”

Enjoy all that is life, it is the least selfish thing you could ever do.

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