Is selfishness always wrong or can it be a form of self-preservation?
This is Part 6 in a series of articles about the “Self.”
Are there good kinds of selfishness?
Does it depend on our definition of selfishness?
(This is No. 6 in a continuing series of articles about the Self. If you would like to read more on the Self, please see the links to other posts below).
Before we come to any conclusions regarding conventional wisdom, let’s look at the Oxford definition.
“Concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure at the expense of consideration for others.”
That’s a pretty well accepted definition, isn’t it?
We think of being selfish as somewhat mean-spirited but “mean-spirited” implies that someone actually thought about NOT being selfish and acted that way anyway.
Maybe the person was just thoughtless.
But thoughtlessness, although connected to selfishness, ISN”T always selfishness, except in its mildest form.
So let’s not go there.
Instead, let’s focus on the two key words/phrases:
“personal profit” and “pleasure.”
Then let’s eliminate the most obvious cases of these kinds of selfishness: personal profit for money and pleasure of the senses.
Those are too easy.
Let’s apply the definition to a common situation.
Two children are born, both talented, smart.
Dad dies. Mom gets sick.
One child gives up a promising career to care for her mother.
The other child leaves home and spends her life in her own way.
Let’s admit that the person who left did so because she was concerned with profit (of various kinds, not necessarily financial).
The word “profit” would not occur to her in this context, much less motivate her) but we’re going with the definition.
She would profit in many ways perhaps–financially, socially, career-wise, etc.
She WOULD get more pleasure because she wouldn’t be tied down and (not quite the same thing, but actually a grade above being tied down) she would be free to pursue her own interests.
So, according to the definition, the one who left is selfish.
Let’s say that the woman who left did so because she felt she would ruin her life by staying home and wasting her talent …talent that her mother wanted her to develop.
Let’s say she felt that, though she loved her mother, she would fulfill her destiny by NOT sacrificing her life to care for her mom.
Let’s say she would not want her own child to do that either.
We might have to broaden the meaning of the words “profit” and pleasure” in our definition in order not to be too harsh.
Because the woman who left (let’s assume) was following her gifts, talents and abilities.
If she doesn’t do that she will be unhappy every day for the rest of her life. (At least that’s what she truly believes.)
She acts upon that.
She loves her self more than her mother?
The woman who stays, acts upon her duty to care for her mother, putting aside her talents, (let’s say–in the extreme case) and devoting herself to her mother.
She loves her mother more than herself?
“No greater love than a woman) lay down her life…”
Yet is she dooming herself to a life of resentment and unhappiness at not being able to grow her gifts and abilities?
Will the one who left be unhappily wracked with guilt?
We don’t know.
But maybe the one who stayed finds enormous love and peace in her role and doesn’t miss worldly success.
And maybe the one who left, fights guilt but generally finds that she made the right decision for herself.
And what of the relationship between the sisters?
We don’t know.
The thing is we all have to make decisions about what we choose to do in life, what action we take in critical situations or circumstances.
We know that whatever we learn about the self, it will always relate in some way to love.
We’ll continue next time. If you like this piece, send it to a friend.
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Up next: Part 7: Are you “selfish” in the family? Or preserving your sanity.