“You are selfish.”
This is one of the most gut-wrenching insults a person can throw at you. It puts you into a special category of low lifes who suck the energy and resources from others to serve their own self interests.
Ironically, being called selfish is usually in response to you being unwilling to do something to serve the accuser’s self-interest, and is quickly followed up with, “You should be more selfless.”
But should you?
Is selflessness the ideal?
Is selfishness really evil?
Dinosaurs explain everything
Reflect back on preschool.
You’re a young child playing with toys in preschool and you have found the perfect toy dinosaur. Sharp teeth, a powerful tail, and bigger than the other toy dinosaurs.
Using your incredible imagination, this dinosaur is crunching all the other wussy toys and eating their innards because your dinosaur is the boss and king of this corner of the playroom.
Then Thomas waddles over.
He caught a glimpse of your dinosaur wreaking havoc on the other toys around you and now he wants a part of the action. As he sloshes over (clearly in need of a diaper change), he goes straight to the dinosaur in your hand and grabs it, trying to pull it away from you.
Luckily, you’ve learned over your short life that Thomas likes to steal your toys, so you had a death grip on your dinosaur as soon as Thomas’ scent wafted into your nostrils, betraying his sloppy attempt at a stealthy approach.
Now the real battle ensues.
You hold onto your dinosaur in an attempt to protect him. Clutching onto him as tightly as you would if he were dangling over the edge of a thousand-foot cliff, and you were the only thing that could save him from falling to certain death.
Thomas starts to realize that he isn’t going to win this struggle by brute force, so he resorts to psychological warfare.
Thomas. Starts. Screaming.
“Mrs. Hansen! He won’t share!” followed by shrieks, tears, and sniffles.
You have been cool, calm, and collected through all of this, and you try to explain in your 4-year-old vocabulary that Thomas just tried to steal your best friend.
But now Mrs. Hansen comes over to you and in a soft but stern voice says,
“Sweetie, you need to be nice and share.”
She holds out her hand.
You shake your head.
“You need to share with Thomas” she repeats.
You give in.
You hand over your partner, your friend, your dinosaur to Mrs. Hansen and she hands it straight to Thomas.
Magically, Thomas’ face isn’t red anymore.
He doesn’t have any tears of excruciating pain and endless sorrow.
His sniffles have disappeared.
In fact, he’s sneakily smirking at you behind Mrs. Hansen’s back as she lectures you on how we should be nice to others and share because selfishness is bad.
Thomas’ antics were all an act! And while he couldn’t win the physical battle, he crushed you in the psychological war as effectively as your dinosaur was crushing the other toys only a moment earlier. You start to wonder how Thomas is 4 years old and still isn’t potty trained but is somehow able to out maneuver you in this battle.
You were taught that forced selflessness was good, but there was nothing good or virtuous here. You were forced to be selfless in order for Thomas to obtain his selfish outcome. Thomas’ selfishness was rewarded while yours was punished.
Tragedies like this happen every day in preschools, elementary schools, high schools, colleges, businesses, homes, and governments around the world. The controversy isn’t always over dinosaurs (except at our house), but the tried-and-true strategy of labeling one person or group as selfish in order to get them to turn over their dinosaur to another selfish person or group has robbed many and forced them to pass resources to also-selfish second-handers.
Forced selflessness is not selfless.
Forced giving is not giving.
Forced charity is not charity.
What will they think of me?
The previous metaphor was jarring I’m sure, and I apologize for drawing up deeply buried memories of your preschool trauma, but what follows is the real evil. An evil that I believe causes more mental suffering, depression, and self-loathing than any other force in our world, and that is Self-Less-Ness.
Here are three quotes from The Fountainhead that I hope will help clarify what I mean by self-less:
- “It’s what I couldn’t understand about people for a long time. They have no self. They live within others. They live second-hand. Look at Peter Keating….He’s paying the price and wondering for what sin and telling himself that he’s been too selfish. In what act or thought of his has there ever been a self?
What was his aim in life? Greatness—in other peoples’ eyes. Fame, admiration, envy — all that which comes from others. Others dictated his convictions, which he did not hold, but he was satisfied that others believed he held them. Others were his motive power and his prime concern.
He didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great. He didn’t want to build, but to be admired as a builder. He borrowed from others in order to make an impression on others.
There’s your actual selflessness.
It’s his ego he’s betrayed and given up. But everyone calls him selfish. That’s the pattern of most people.”
– Chapter IX, Part 4, pp. 605
- “Listen to what is being preached today. Look at everyone around us. You’ve wondered why they suffer, why they seek happiness and never find it. If any man stopped and asked himself whether he’s ever held a truly personal desire, he’d find the answer. He’d see that all his wishes, his efforts, his dreams, his ambitions are motivated by other men.
He’s not really struggling even for material wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion – prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own. He can find no joy in the struggle and no joy when he has succeeded. He can’t say about a single thing: ‘This is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbors gape at me’.
Then he wonders why he’s unhappy.”
– Chapter IX, Part 4, pp. 607
- “To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That’s what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul – would you understand why that’s much harder?”
– Chapter VIII, Part 4, pp. 576
When I first read these lines, they hit me like a sledgehammer right in the guilt bone.
That’s a real bone by the way.
I took anatomy in college so… I know things like this.
(The guilt bone is not a real thing).
In all seriousness, when I first read these lines, I thought about why I was pursuing the things I was in my life. At the time I first read these, I was a pre-med student with a lackluster intention of becoming a doctor.
I genuinely wanted to help people, but my whole life I had been fed the “you’re smart, you should be a doctor” line, so if enough people agree, then that is what I should do, right?
When I told people that I was pre-med and hoping to become an ophthalmologist, they would say, “oh, you’ll make a great doctor. I’ve always seen you as a doctor and successful and compliment, compliment, compliment.”
It felt good! It felt better than actually learning about the human body, because then I could regurgitate those fun facts to impress others that I was going to be a doctor.
Reading those quotes was the beginning of the end of me becoming a doctor. Because a doctor was not what I wanted to be. It was the prestige of becoming a doctor that I wanted.
I still get comments from well-meaning people about how it’s too bad I didn’t become a doctor and how that profession is so much more suitable/worthy of me than what I do now.
What are you doing right now for others?
I’m not talking about acts of service (we’ll get to that later). I’m talking about all of the decisions you’re making every day in order to elevate the perception of yourself by performing an act that isn’t really you?
In other words, in what ways are you selling your soul and losing a part of your ‘self’ to fit in to what your friends, family, or society want you to be?
• Buying clothes that make you look like you’re in a higher financial position.
• Driving a car that makes you look like you’re well-off.
• Starving yourself to look ‘good’ for your trip to Hawaii and then telling everyone how happy you are with this diet when all you really want is to eat anything with more substance than a carrot stick.
• Working at a company you don’t believe in because that company is on the Fortune 500 list and pays well.
• Offering up how inspiring church was when the whole time you just wanted to leave.
• Loving a TV show because everyone else does and it gave you something to talk about, but deep down, you thought it was a huge waste of time.
• Buying a house you could barely afford in the right neighborhood because people told you that was the “responsible thing to do.”
The list goes on, and on, and on.
Confession time: I’ve done every one of these.
Well, what about serving others?!?!?!
Acts of service are good, right?
Well… that depends.
What is the intent behind the act of service?
Because con artists serve others, and their motive is malicious.
Are you performing these acts of service through a genuine caring towards the person or cause that you are serving, or is there an ulterior motive?
Confession time #2: I’ve done both.
I’ve done service activities without any real concern for the cause. Instead, I hoped that it would pay off for me later, whether by looking good in front of a person of influence, or a future financial incentive.
I’ve also dropped everything to help in any way I can for people that I care for deeply or a cause I firmly believe in.
Side note: these confessions likely disqualify me from ever running for political office. Not that that was a life goal… just sayin’.
Selling selflessness with selfishness
I find it interesting that in the process of selling selflessness to the masses, the reward is still selfish. Whether it’s a million virgins waiting for you because you blew yourself up, or mansions in heaven for keeping the commandments, or social woke-ness for marching against a cause you don’t know much about, but because a friend told you camera crews would be there, you are so in.
The ends are still all selfish goals. So is it ever truly selfless?
Acts of Valor
I’ve spent a lot of time venting with a mostly negative/sarcastic voice, but I would like to take a moment and point out the real acts of valor that take place each and every day.
I’m talking about the soldier who dives on a grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers.
I’m talking about the mother who is home all day keeping her three kids alive, homeschooling them, and feeding them while she still finds time to work a job, take care of herself, and be an amazing wife, even though her husband doesn’t acknowledge her enough.
I’m talking about the person who donates an organ to save the life of a stranger, a friend, or a family member.
I’m talking about countless other examples of genuine goodness where people perform these acts because that’s just who they are.
It isn’t to impress a girl or boy. It isn’t to advance in life. It’s simply because deep down, what makes up the character of these people is the drive to help when, where, and how they can.
Back to the negative
Self-less-ness is evil.
The idea that we no longer have a self because we have prostituted off chunks of our soul to appease others is the evil this post is about.
More specifically, it is the Thomases of the world who know that by preying on society’s definition of selflessness they can rob others (the Thomas in the story earlier is the punk, not everyone named Thomas).
The evil is in the areas of the world that promote standards of appearance with Photoshopped thigh gaps, abs, and skinny arms in every magazine cover, advertisement, and movie that tell girls they aren’t beautiful enough so they should sell a version of their self to try and reach the unattainable.
The evil lies in the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses culture that diminishes self-worth if you don’t have the house, cars, clothes, toys, income, or job that someone else has.
The evil lies in the mass-media that forces you in one of only two camps on every complex societal and world issue, and labels you as racist, homophobic, bigoted, selfish, greedy, uneducated, stupid, or evil if you don’t 100% agree with what you’re told to believe.
Don’t fall for the trap. Humans are more complex than that.
You don’t have to be what everyone else is telling you to be.
In fact, if you are only what others tell you to be, then are you really you?
Wrapping it up
I hope you’ll join me in searching for and locating areas in your life where you may be masquerading as something you’re not, and then working to both find and live your true self.
Thank you to all the heroes out there putting their lives on the line for complete strangers, many of whom would, if given the chance, insult, berate, or kill you for serving them.
Thank you to the heroes who serve others because that’s just who you are.
You are an inspiration to me.