On Selfishness

Is selfishness a bad thing?

The word itself definitely has a negative connotation. My brain associates the word selfishness with greed, pride, and arrogance. This definition makes selfishness the opposite of nice things like humility, charity, and self-sacrifice.

The best example of this kind of malicious selfishness in today's world is Martin Shkreli. People like him take every last advantage and opportunity for themselves. It doesn't matter how it may negatively affect the lives of others. They prioritize themselves and their interests over all. This is gross; this is selfishness.

My whole life, I've been taught this perspective on the word selfishness. Family, school, and church all told me that selfishness was wrong. The morally correct choice was always the one of selflessness. Take care of the other before yourself, even at your own expense. Self-sacrifice is the highest good.

This sounds good in a very lofty way. A very beautiful way. The words of Jesus Christ himself were full of these lessons:

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)

. . .

There is definitely value in self-sacrifice. But there's also value in self-preservation, self-respect, and self-care. These ideas need to be reconciled somehow. We need to allow room for context and nuance.

I got to witness the LGBTQ fight for equality and the Black Lives Matter movement as I came of age. These have had a profound impact on the way I view justice, oppression, and selfishness. It seems reprehensible to ask my friends to resist their oppression by "laying down their lives" and "denying themselves". Passionate demonstration and desperate outcry have proven pretty effective in actually bringing justice to the brutal systems of oppression they live under. But those actions aren't self-sacrificing. Are they good?

Maybe there's a definition of selfishness that makes it a good thing, A definition that's closer to self-care, self-respect, healthy pride, etc. Why is this a definition I've never considered or valued before? What is it about my self that created this perspective.

Let's see here . . . oh yes. I'm a cisgender, straight, white, able-bodied man. For my entire life, my society has told me that I am good and valid. I've never been in a situation where practicing self-respect and self-care would've benefited me because society was doing it for me already.

This makes it very easy to make selfish decisions. Society has trained me for it and expects it of me. It's my default. If left to my own un-self-examined devices, I will unconsciously prefer my own needs over others, dominate conversation, and think I'm a pretty great guy the entire time.

When I matured and developed the ability to self examine, I realized that this is selfishness. It's the same malicious version of selfishness practiced by Shkreli, if more innocent and less extreme.

I could always look down on selfishness while idolizing self-sacrifice because I am privileged enough to not need selfishness to survive.

. . .

I've only recently been made aware of the reverse perspective of this. Let's imagine someone suffering from depression. Their name is Jo. They're emotionally numb, can't sleep but is always tired, and has suicidal thoughts. What is their relationship to selfishness and self-sacrifice?

During particularly bad depressive episodes, Jo stays home to take care of themselves instead of spending time with a needy friend and performing emotional labor. Is that selfish? Yes. Is it wrong? No.

If Jo is constantly in a state of self-denial and tending to the needs of others before their own, they suffer. They have a greater need for self-care than someone who doesn't suffer from a mental illness, like me. And there are versions of this comparison for countless other factors: gender, sexuality, race, disability, etc.

I just happened to have hit the literal genetic jackpot, so I'm dumb and these ideas are new to me.

. . .

There's a perfect analogy that I learned from the beautiful podcast Friendshipping. If you're on a plane and the oxygen masks drop, you're instructed to put on your own mask first. Then and only then should you help your neighbor put on theirs. This sounded bad when I first heard it. How much grander, how much more morally sound would it be to put aside your own needs and help your neighbor with their mask to guarantee their safety. Only then should you tend to yourself. How good. How wonderfully pure.

Except there's one giant problem. If you're on a plane that's experiencing cabin decompression and you don't have an oxygen mask on, you're going to suck at helping someone with theirs. You'll actually hurt your neighbor and yourself if you don't put your own mask on first. Sometimes, tending to your own needs first, is what enables you to be selfless in an effective way. If your goal is to help others, you need a baseline level of self-care first. Put on that oxygen mask, then look around for those in need.

Being someone like me, a genetic lottery winner, is like having the oxygen mask put on for me . . . by society. So my delusions of helping others first are garbage. I've already been helped, I just didn't realize it. If someone less privileged than I needs to put on their mask before they can help their neighbor that does't make them less ethically pure than me; that makes them smart and healthy.

It makes them selfish. But, you know, in a good way.