Whether we like it or not, most of us think we are more important than everyone else. Oh, there will be those who will dress themselves in pseudo-humility and claim that they are all for the benefit of others, thank you very much. The world must be filled to the brim with kind-hearted, altruistic souls, because almost always, people will gawp with absolute horror if faced with the idea that they are, in fact, selfish.
The trouble is, we are a selfish bunch. It was during an Economics class that I heard the lecturer say, “The first rule of economics: human beings have endless wants.” If two children are sat beside each other and one has two bits of chocolate and the other has three, the child with the two pieces will want a third piece. We never quite grow out of that.
The tricky thing with selfishness is that, somehow, people equate being selfish only with how they handle their money. An ex-girlfriend of mine swore she was the least selfish person because she was generous with money. This was true. She’d think nothing of giving her sister significant amounts of money on several occasions without asking for it back. However, when it came to being noticed and acknowledged, she would demand the full attention of everyone in the room – often pointing out her generosity with money whenever her mother or sister weren’t revolving solely around her.
People can be selfish in so many ways and to so many degrees. Personally, I know only a few people who are almost completely selfless (let’s face it – no-one’s that perfect) and even they have their moments. Selfishness can manifest in the slightest of ways, for example, when someone says or does something we don’t like and we end up frustrated, angry or annoyed simply because our ego has taken a knock. You don’t have to be a money-grabbing, anti-social recluse in order to think mostly of yourself.
The Buddhist scholar, Professor Robert Thurman, put it brilliantly. He said that, if we are sat in a room with nine other people, we think that we are “more real” than the rest. That is to say, we can only know our own needs, wants, desires and wishes and any time these aren’t fulfilled, only we feel the effects – sod the other nine people! We aren’t left with their despairs and disappointments, only our own, so we come first!
In my own experience as a Buddhist, I’ve been around other Buddhists who will say they wish every bit of happiness to all people and animals, before ripping into a colleague or acquaintance for some trivial reason. Now I rarely have time for people who proclaim that they are the salt of the earth. If you have to point out to people that you’re kind and selfless, chances are you’re not. People who proclaim to be on a par with Mother Teresa (who, by the way, had some questionable dealings herself) are like people who don’t bother to wash and instead use body spray in an effort to mask the smell. It doesn’t work; the stench of selfishness soon pushes through the fragrance of compassion.
Admittedly, in my efforts to rid myself of my own narrow-minded selfishness, I tried to convince myself that, actually, I wasn’t selfish at all. But then I realised that any chance of ridding myself of any selfishness would only come once I pushed myself to face my faults in all their glory. It’s no good pretending certain qualities don’t exist when they obviously do. That kind of warped logic only leads to further delusion and unhappiness. We can easily convince others of who we think we are, but it’s very difficult to do the same when we lie alone in bed at night with our own thoughts. Overcoming anything has to begin with honest acknowledgement.
Being selfish isn’t a bad thing, per se. Every single one of us wants to be happy and avoid suffering – that’s one thing that absolutely everybody in the world has in common. Ironically though, a lot of what we chase in an effort to bring us happiness actually has the reverse affect. How many people do you know who will say “Life is great!” one minute, and the next, they’re depressed and looking for a DVD and the largest tub of ice-cream they can find? It’s because they depend entirely on temporary fixes – they never take the time to sit with themselves and ask what would really bring them lasting contentment.
Everyone is different. Some people love to party at the weekends and this makes them happy, for a time. Others love to travel the world, while some prefer the home comforts of family life. Whatever makes people happy, they should absolutely go for it, but one thing that all these lifestyles have in common is that the happiness is never consistent. It even gets to the point where people will become so confused about what they do that they actually start criticising others for their lifestyle choices.
For example, when I go to concerts, I love to stand and watch the bands. I get an immense joy from just standing and listening to the music. I can’t dance, so I don’t try, and even if I could dance, I’d leave it for the nightclub dance floor. Some friends of mine, however, jump about like maniacs and can dance through a whole two-hour set. This makes them happy and that’s fine. The funny thing though is that they think that I’m unhappy because I’m not doing what they’re doing, which is crazy – I have the best time watching bands; I just don’t feel the need to dance, that’s all. Still, they call me “boring” or “depressing” – to their standards, maybe, but I’m comfortable enough in my own skin without feeling the need to be someone I’m not.
People do this kind of all the time. A lot of us try to edit the lives of others in accordance with what we each individually believe brings happiness, in order that our beliefs can be validated. If one person finds happiness in marriage and family life, that’s great – but happiness is not a one-size-fits-all emotion and the very fact that we expect others to behave, act and appear as we think they should is possibly the strongest indication of selfishness, since it’s all about our way and making things to be the way we want them to be.
This kind of approach is problematic in one simple sense: life never plays to expectation and when we think it should (i.e. when we’re being selfish), that’s when we feel unhappy and angry and frustrated and all the other negative emotions that arise from disappointment. Every one of us expects happiness all the time. Selfishness is quite clear whenever we’re caught by surprise when things don’t go our way, but why should things always go how we want them to go? And why are we surprised when they don’t? It doesn’t make sense. If we can’t control what our own bodies do through time, how on earth can we expect everything else to kowtow to our wishes?
Selfishness will always lead only to unhappiness. Sure, being selfish can bring a short bursts of happiness, but that sort of happiness rarely lasts. Even rich and successful people who we might think of as selfish people aren’t necessarily content. Some of the richest celebrities and public figures are the more insecure and paranoid people. It doesn’t matter one bit how much you have in the bank or what brand of clothing you wear, if you aren’t content on the inside, what’s the use of everything else – to appear to others that you look well? I’ve said it before: in a self-centred world, no-one cares. When you walk down the street, a lot of people around you feel inadequate. While you think you’re searching for their approval, they’re looking for yours at the same time. They’re not interested in how you are or look – they’re only focused on how they appear to the outside world.
All of our insecurities, fears and doubts that we have are fuelled by selfishness. I used to groan as a child whenever I’d hear anyone tell me I had to share. I didn’t want to – I had the third people of chocolate and I was keeping it; if anyone came near me, I’d have their arm off! But thinking back to my school days and early teens (and thinking of friends also), it was always about trying to impress others around you. Who could tell the best jokes, be the funniest, run the fastest, wear the best clothes and so on – anything that make you stand out positively from everyone else, that’s what it was all about. Minds were never settled and rarely were they content.
In the slow process of becoming less selfish in certain areas - though, I’m no Jesus - I’ve found that, actually, it’s quite refreshing to let go of the small, trivial things that really don’t matter. In holding onto things, they are bound to get heavy. If you hold a rock in your hands, your arms will only feel lighter once you put it down. It’s similar with the mind: why burden yourself with stuff that doesn’t matter? Just let it go – otherwise, it’s only you who’s left to deal with the heaviness of it all and really, where’s the fun in that?