Self vs. Selfish

October 27, 2011

There is a certain wry amusement to be had in that the moments I feel most blindingly insightful are almost inevitably followed by an awareness of blithering stupidity. Every flash of wisdom must be learned for myself, I know, but why on earth can’t I learn from others?

For a couple of days now I’ve been pondering the difference between being true to self and being selfish.

What hit me this morning (watering plants is a generative act) selfishness only arises when you act in a way that’s contrary to what others have a *right* to expect of you.

So then I ask, what rights over myself and my actions have I given to others, and why? Did I assign this power consciously? Is it built into my culture’s social contracts? Was it implicit in other agreements? Or am I seeing it as a right when it’s not?

The reverse is also to be considered. Why do others assume they have rights over me? And, for that matter, who do I hold rights over?

Okay. I should have thought of that one sooner. The only rights I have over others are that I expect to be treated with respect. To be acknowledged as a person with feelings, needs, and yes, duties — to a point.

Example time. If I have agreed to meet someone for a walk and I decide I don’t want to go, I have an obligation to contact them as soon as possible so they aren’t standing at the trail head waiting for me. If I don’t want to go, but keep the engagement anyways, I have an obligation to be an agreeable companion for the duration. But I do not have an obligation to go if I don’t want to.

However, my decision to go or not must also factor in what I know of their needs. Do I know that they are depending on me to show up, not just for company, but because they needed to talk about something? That they are afraid to walk alone? If I have agreed to join them, knowing this, then I have an obligation to honor that agreement, and mere whim must not keep me from that meeting.

Again, though, if my situation has altered such that meeting them would be a true hardship, then I have a right to cancel.

So, I can choose to not meet with my walking partner and not be selfish, as long as I have taken into account all those factors, and made a decision that is as rational as is (humanly) possible. It would not be hypocrisy to go for the walk even though I didn’t want to be there. I was honoring a prior agreement and respecting them enough to show up — and be pleasant about it.

Fine mutations, dependent upon so many subtle signals and assumptions.If I were expecting my companion to show up for a walk, and they called before hand to tell me they weren’t coming, I would not see them as selfish. So why do I tell myself I’m selfish if I do that to them? Again – if they knew I was depending on them, and they cancelled for no reason, or for a frivolous reason, then I would call them selfish. But if I knew that they were abandoning me because of real need — I would support their actions. Because I care about them.

If I want to be true to self, I have to be certain I am not deliberately using others, and that I act with thought and care, not whimsy.

Society does impose expectations. Why else are women who don’t want children or people who don’t want to be married told they’re selfish? It is true that they are more likely to become self-obsessed, but selfish? Not at all. People who have the courage to recognize who they are, what they need and want, even if it’s different from societal norms — especially if it’s different from the norm — should be respected. It takes courage to defy the oppressive weight of society.

So I conclude with my oft-repeated one certainty: never treat others as objects.

As long as you strive to recognize that different is not bad, that you have no rights to tell others what to do and how to live, that you do have an obligation to treat others with respect, then you are not selfish.

And now I just need to make myself believe that.

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One Response to “Self vs. Selfish”

  1. erbdex Says:

    Beauty.
    Perspective, to a point is judgmental to our notions of wisdom. There is no wisdom. Our minds call the solutions that fit-in well with all subjects’ perspectives; wisdom.

    Why can’t you learn from others’ experiences?
    Well, of-course you can. Given you drown into their experience itself. Another way to put this would be that, you don’t just have to get in their shoes, rather into their caps, t-shirts and denims too. You need that sweaty leather strap wrist watch of theirs too. To see what they see.
    Its hard. And almost impossible.
    A very apt usage of phrase ‘humanly-possible’ by you there.

    Salman Rushdie, an indian author of wide acclaim happened to have said:
    ‎’I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.’


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