My dad and I were talking about kids one time long ago and he jokingly said “You know, if a 2-year-old could kill you for a cookie, they would.” He was right, of course, but in my head I thought “Yea but then wouldn’t that toddler die of starvation later since his cookie provider was dead?” We were both right but the sad part was that it took me another 20 years to understand that I had been acting like that same toddler for most of my life.
Being selfish is not only perfectly normal and natural, it is actually hardwired into your genetic code. When a mommy bird sacrifices herself by luring a cat away from the nest that maternal instinct isn’t just touching and brave, it’s also the result of the base drive to protect her genetic legacy. There is almost nothing more basic to our nature than the desire to protect and provide for ourselves above others. Many religions and philosophies see this as a fundamental problem, something that must be overcome by what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”.
Of course anyone with even a passing knowledge of history and reality can tell you that time and again these admonitions fail and someone acts out of self-interest, even if this ends up causing lots of harm or even death to others. So we feel guilty when we act out of selfishness, but we still do it.
You can’t halt selfishness anymore than you could end jealousy or hornyness, it is simply one of the facts of being a human being. Those creeds which demand that we deny a basic human feature fail over and over because what 30 million years of evolution has wrought cannot be undone by a lifetime of guilt trips and threats. In fact, you don’t even really have to end selfishness to substantially improve the world. The wiser course is to take those natural traits and to use them as a cautious person uses fire, carefully employed for a positive benefit.
To act in a wisely selfish way means to consider all our actions and their effects in an enlightened way. To think even a few hours down the road often changes things drastically. To act with care does not mean that we have to be martyrs or saints, it just means not taking actions that will ultimately harm ourselves later. In a real way there can be no more selfish action than to try to live in as kind a way as possible, for this generally rewards us far more than a few short-term, but ultimately harmful actions do.
A simple example; to steal from the local store so much that it goes out of business results in not only the store owner suffering, his other patrons too, but ultimately even the thief has nothing left to gain once the store is gone. Everyone has lost, even the thief supposedly acting in his own best interest . This is selfishness in ignorance, it is gaining a little something now and losing much more later.
Take instead the example of having a rich but annoying Great uncle, to sit and listen to his boring stories is a small sacrifice until he passes away and you find that he left you a giant inheritance. In this case the uncle gets an audience, and you (and your family) gain financially. A small sacrifice in the short-term for a larger gain later. Selfishness in wisdom.
I am aware that these are really simplistic examples, but the fact is that many of the stupid decisions we make are for a short-term payoff at the risk of great harm later in situations just as simple as my examples. I do it all the time and when I finally realize what a little wisdom would have done to improve an impulsive selfish urge I want to kick myself. The fact is that even if you only want to see the world through purely selfish eyes you would be foolish not to act out of compassion for others. It isn’t hard to see, you only have to stop and look at what is occurring daily in our lives. Conflict and pettiness always result in more harm and suffering, over and over we marvel at how silly dramas and slights turn into bad blood and even violence. I don’t think its an exaggeration to suppose that many lives have been ruined over a thoughtless comment or look.
I have lived both kinds lives for some time, before I got my head out of my ass in my mid thirties I went through most my life thoughtlessly selfish and time and again my shitty actions ended up with my having shitty results. You can’t make a pie with mud and think its going to taste like apples, but that’s exactly what I did. I was always amazed that I could never catch a break when all I had to do was look and see how I had failed to give anyone else the same courtesy and it should have been painfully clear why my life was so unhappy.
I got lucky when I had a near nervous breakdown. Something broke free in me and I realized that something fundamental with my world was not working . Something in my life was out of sync with the rest of the world. It took me many years of meditation and effort at correcting my poor behaviors and attitudes to get the tiny bit of progress I have (believe me, I’m still a prick, just less than before) But almost immediately I began to find that all those breaks I had been missing started to head my way. It didn’t take long til it almost felt like magic the way that things fell into place in my life, it wasn’t magic, it was simply that I was no longer trying to succeed by fucking other people over. It also didn’t take long to realize that if I really wanted to be selfish then I would have to be so wisely, If I wanted the world to behave the way I wanted then I had to start by fixing my own actions. If I wanted to be respected and safe and loved then I was going to have to start giving that out as well, why did it take me so long to see it?
I think it is because wise selfishness is learned, stupid selfishness is inborn in the basic lizard part of our brains. Basic selfishness is what makes a rat take a small crumb because its 3 inches closer than the bigger crumb, once we start to open our eyes, though, we can fianlly see the larger rewards that come with a little more effort and self-discipline.