Normally the opposite of selfish is thought of as selfless. The selfish person doesn’t care about others and only cares about himself. The selfless person doesn’t care about himself but only cares about others.
I have spent most of my life trying to be selfless, thinking that is the way to avoid being selfish. Being selfish never appealed to me. Helping others, improving the world, doing good seemed more exciting and fun. More who I wanted to be.
But I have come to see that selfish and selfless are two sides of the same coin. And most interestingly, neither is really about the self at all.
The selfish person is convinced he is acting only for himself. For what is good for him. But actually he has already given the game away. For what is good for him is always defined in relation to what he is not going to share with others. Or in terms of what he is going to get before others. Or how he is going to think about himself and not others.
When one is being selfish one inevitably starts with a comparison with others. I want more of that pizza. I want to be rich. I want to be famous. I want my needs to be recognized.
The selfish person is trapped not within himself, but in thinking of himself as constantly at war with others. That he has to be on his guard lest what he wants or what he feels entitled to is taken away by others. The person who thinks only about himself and not those around him isn’t literally thinking only about himself. To the contrary. He is stuck thinking about himself only through the other – in terms of how he will not be moved by their needs or ideas, but will listen only to himself.
The selfish person lives under the illusion that he is really living for himself. He fails to see that he is so caught in the grips of seeing conflict everywhere that his sense of his own desires and wishes are totally permeated by his image of others as competitors.
The selfless person is the converse. He thinks he has merged his desires entirely with the needs of others, so that he is simply a walking extension of others and the community. He wants to stamp out selfishness so much that his desires have merged with the communal good.
The selfless person fails to see that it’s not that his desires have disappeared. They have simply attached themselves to the desires of others. The selfless person is driven not so much by the pristine intrinsic desire to help others, as much as by a heightened sense of self doubt and whether he is good enough to have desires of his own or capable enough to fulfill them even if he did.
While the selfish person is actually implicitly fixated on others, the selfless person is implicitly fixated on himself. Where the selfish person feels he has to assert himself so as not to submit to others, the selfless person feels he has to merge with others so as to fill the void he senses within himself. The selfish person is driven by curtailing the other’s will. The selfless person is driven by covering up the void they experience in their own will.
Being selfish or selfless are not fun. They take a lot of work. A lot of effort. A lot of self-deception. A lot of struggle. To convince oneself either that only oneself matters or that only others matter. To gain ones confidence by dividing the world into the selfish and the selfless and then placing oneself in one of those categories. And trying one’s best, against the currents of change and a greater self awareness, to stay selfish or selfless.
It is draining being selfish or selfless. A constant act of self-creation or self-erasure, while convincing oneself that it is one’s natural, default, true, inevitable state.
This is most of our world. People are usually some combination of the selfish and the selfless. Caught in a struggle between the self-involved and the do-gooder part of themselves. The self-involved think they win if they can resist the do-gooders and keep to their “natural” path of their own desires; a selfish world where each can do their own thing. The do-gooders think they win if they can help others to get from being self-involved to becoming do-gooders; a selfless community where everyone cares only about each other.
And so the cycle spins and spins, as the selfish and the selfless run around after each other.
However, often the most interesting, creative and fun things are done neither by the selfish nor the selfless vision of ourselves. But by, what we might call, the selfful.
The selfful person is content in himself not because he is choosing his desires over others. Rather it is because he does not see the others as threats at all. He sees other people the way he sees the trees and the stars and the animals in the wild: as part of nature running its course and not defined in relation to him. To the selfful person the person honking in a traffic jam isn’t a threat to his desires. The honking man is a force of nature just like a rainstorm or thunder – something that has to be navigated around and which mainly exists in its own space and not simply in relation to oneself.
The selfful man spends little time thinking about others because he doesn’t define himself in relation to them. He sees others as external to his own egocentric space – as not defined by how they matter to his life. He sees others as comets moving in and out of one’s path not because they care about his path, but just because that is how the broader forces are moving them.
Not fixated on others, the selfful person has no reason to be selfless either. Just as others are not threats, neither are they helpless creatures waiting to be helped by oneself. To the selfless person others exist mainly in relation to oneself. To the selfful person others exist mainly in relation to themselves and to nature.
The selfful person doesn’t push away others the way the selfish person does. Nor does he merge himself with others the way the selfless person does. He sees others the way we look at animals at the zoo. As interesting specimens, which sometimes hide from us when we want to see them and sometimes run at us as if we were their prey in the wild. But in both cases always aware that there is a barrier between them and us such that their actions cannot really perturb us.
The selfish and the selfless are like charioteers who hitch their wagon to a wild horse. Thinking they can defeat or tame the wild horse, they focus most of their energies on the animal. And being pulled here and there by the horse, dragged on the ground and thrown into the air, the selfish thinks he is controlling the wild horse and the selfless thinks he has united with the wild horse.
The selfful, respectful of the wild horses which are others, doesn’t seek to control them. He lets them be what they are, letting them run around and kicking up dust and charging at him or playing in the grass and nuzzling up to him as it suits their mood. Aware that others are driven not by a will he can control but by the majestic power of nature itself working through them, the selfful person sees others the way he sees a powerful wave in the ocean or a stampede of buffalo – with awe for its majesty and with care not to get too close.
Free of thinking about others, the selfful person can focus on himself and his relation to nature. With his attention not diverted towards every comment and action of passers by, of what they did in years past and what they will say in years to come, the selfful person can look within and see the majestic power of the wild horse and the powerful wave and the stampeding buffalo in his own consciousness. His mind free from struggle with others, it is free to contemplate itself.
To the selfish and the selfless their own selves are mere seats from which they mainly look outward, away at the actions of others. To the selfful, free of feeling mentally bound to others, their own self is as vast and as unending as the universe. He seeks neither to protect his self nor to forgo it, but to immerse himself in his self.
The selfful sees each self as a vast ocean. He can neither control nor truly help other oceans. His focus is on diving into the ocean of his own self and to the explore the depths of his consciousness. He swims the live long day in the ocean of his consciousness like a child taking a swim or a scientist exploring unknown depths or an artist lost in the reveries of his inspiration.
To the selfish problems like global warming or poverty or the pandemic are ultimately just ways others are trying to control them. The only response they see as apt is to throw off the shackles of others’ impositions so that they can do what they want.
To the selfless problems like global warming or poverty or the pandemic are ultimately opportunities to do good and to change things for the better. To help others be less selfish so that together we can merge into a common, united society.
To the selfful problems like global warming or poverty or the pandemic are ultimately a reflection of the complexity of nature. The selfful neither seeks to deny the problem like the selfish nor focus immediately on group action like the selfless. He seeks rather to be with the complexity of the problems by being attuned to the complexity of nature. For the selfful person the door to such attunement is through understanding his own self.
To the selfful person the future isn’t, as it is for the selfish, just a never ending battle of wills. Nor is it, as it is for the selfless, a utopian dream where all people will live as equal beings, sharing everything without strife. For the selfful person the future is mainly defined by more and more people becoming open to the mysteries of their own selves, and acting from the space of that stillness. What that looks like is as hard to predict as predicting the effects of millions of waves crashing into each other.
The selfish person sees peace as a fantasy. The selfless person sees peace as an achievement to be gained by changing others. The selfful person sees peace as the natural state of the self when it is immersed in itself, free to explore itself with creativity and play.
The selfful person won’t thereby end wars, feed the homeless or cure diseases. But in seeking to better understand himself and not getting caught in turmoil with others, he unleashes the potential to transform the deeper, psychic energies of which the wars and the poverty are outward symptoms.
The selfish and the selfless spend most of their time thinking about others. They seek to understand themselves in terms of others, and so end up understanding neither themselves nor others.
The selfful person focuses on himself not through others but directly through a focus on his own awareness. By letting others be with themselves, without imposing one’s narratives and needs on them, the selfful person gains the freedom to be fully with himself. What a sweet freedom it is!