A Few Thoughts on Selfishness

To a lot of people, selfishness is a four-letter word masquerading as an eleven-letter word. But the ability to be selfish, to think of yourself first, is an important part of having a happy, healthy life. I mean in moderation, of course. There is a delicate balance within a group dynamic (i.e. more than just you).

There is (at least) an element of self interest in everything we do and  there are consequences to our actions. That could be why entering the less familiar territory of trying to perform a purely selfless act can be like negotiating a minefield. Allow me to try to explain.

Let’s say you want to go to a Springsteen Concert. That’s great, because you are helping to provide an income for that artist, a selfless act. However, are you being selfish because someone else who really wanted to go could have bought those tickets instead of you, and now the concert is sold out? But what if that person doesn’t buy the tickets because they are having their own internal conversation about selfishness? Follow that thought to its ultimate, logical conclusion- nobody buys Springsteen tickets and Bruce has to take a job as a garage mechanic to make ends meet, which is tragic and very selfish on our parts.

On the other hand, are you being selfish because concert tickets are expensive and that money could be used for something else? Let’s say that you have enough money for one concert, but your girlfriend/partner/wife has no desire to hear three hours of the Boss, especially since she only likes “Streets of Philadelphia” and he sure ain’t going to play that. He’ll be selfishly playing new songs and deep album tracks for people who have already been listening to him for thirty or forty years, instead of selflessly trotting out nothing but the greatest hits for people who selflessly gave up their time and money to attend something they know little about, are only vaguely interested in, and will complain about later. Those people would be better off seeing the Rolling Stones, the most selfless band in the world by that standard.

Sorry, I went off on a tangent. Anyway, you decide to perform an act of self sacrifice and spend that money taking your girlfriend/partner/wife to see Rod Stewart, which is what they selfishly want. You know that this is a good selfless act because it is killing you, but it will make her happy, and maybe she will transfer some of her feelings for Rod to you when the night is over (selfish).

You sit morosely in the theatre while your girlfriend/partner/wife bounces up and down in delight. Rod croons to her and occasionally smacks himself on the ass in her general direction. Why? I don’t know, but the ladies seem to like it. Meanwhile, the crowd chant from “Badlands” plays on a continuous loop in your head. Hours go by, maybe days.

Finally the lights come up. Your girlfriend/partner/wife smiles at you and says, “Wasn’t that great?” Well, no, it wasn’t but you’re not going to say that. You don’t say anything. You smile and nod, close to tears. You’re lost in misery, wondering how many years it will be until Springsteen comes around again, or even if he will come around again.

You look up but your girlfriend/partner/wife is halfway to the exit. You catch up with her and she gives you a look that could peel plaster. “What’s wrong”, you ask. No answer. Then it hits you – you did not have an appropriately positive reaction to her pleasure from your selfless act. Why? Because you were selfishly too busy feeling sorry for yourself. A nasty row ensues, which results in you breaking up/sleeping on the couch/filing for divorce.

As you walk away she shouts “You should have just gone to the Springsteen concert”. At least you agree on something.

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