Friday, March 14, 2008

The Problem with Selflessness

We've all at one time or another, when feeling down and depressed, received the advice to do something for someone else in order to feel better. It's a conundrum really: to find happiness for ourselves, we must lose ourselves in the service of others. The equation selflessness = happiness appears to be circular instead of linear. I'm being selfless precisely because I want to be happy. Isn't that the very definiton of selfishness?

Is it possible to perform a purely selfless act? Can we do something for another without receiving a benefit ourselves? Can we do anything selfless without being selfish?

Let's examine a conventionally perceived selfless act: raising children. People (parents) wax on about the selflessness involved in bearing and rearing their young. If the individual tasks of parenting are broken down and examined individually, parenting begins to look very selfless: changing a diaper, giving a bath,preparing a meal, laundering an outfit. The performance of these tasks in and of themselves does not scream selfishness. Except, in most cases, said parents chose to bring a child into the world because they believed the child would bring fulfillment to them, that having a child would, in short, make the parents happy. One could argue that having children is in fact selfish, narcissistic even, creating a miniaturized version of you to ooh and ahh over, and (hopefully) care for you when you're old.

I suppose I started mulling over this self-ish-less issue tonight because Bubba asked me a question: What would I do if I were the only person on earth? (This is a twist on the "alone on a desert island" scenario, except with access to all material goods and without the hope of being rescued or running into hot, scantily-clad natives). Bubba, of course, had ready answers that involved rummaging through people's homes and learning how to fly an airplane or navigate a boat across the Pacific. But I couldn't think of anything to do, because I was struck by how utterly pointless a life without anyone else would be.

It's hard to imagine acting without self interest. It's equally hard to imagine acting without the interest of other people. Even self-absorbed acts seem oddly dependent on other people. Would you worry about your looks if there was no one to see? Could you run a one-man rat race? Would you be motivated to create - sing, write, paint, dance - for an audience of none?

Alone on the earth, it would be hard to be selfless. There would be no one to lose yourself to. And, I suppose, perhaps no way to really find yourself. Alone on the earth, I fear I would tire of being selfish. For my own self-interest, I would want other people to care for, laugh with, love and serve.

My own self-interest requires the interests of others.

Do you see the problem with that?


Marci said...

I think the difference in your responses clearly indicates how men and women are different. A womans intuition is to care for others while a man looks out for himself first. This is not to say that men are incapable of caring for others, but when no one else is around... I couldn't agree more with you I think after a few hours alone I wouldn't know what to do with myself, I suppose the only thing left to do would be to find a scantily clad native and work on repopulating the world!

Stacy & Mike said...

I am racking my brain trying to think of a completely selfless act. The only one that is even a possiblity in my mind is giving ones life for someone else because then you are no longer here to recieve any reward. It's the believing in the here-after that might nix that because the reward is waiting right? Love the post.

Cheryl and William said...

I think your question is the reason that God created Eve as well, and not just Adam. We NEED other people

Kristen said...

Wow. That's deep Kim. You are amazing to think like that. I have to agree with you.

Brooke said...

I have to agree with the comment by the end of the day, a deep thought involves choosing what to fix for dinner.

angie b said...'s Angie, Stacy's friend. From time to time I come and read some of your posts. This one struck me! Wow, I have to agree with Marci Women DO think differently and I would be bored to the gore after eating everything I wanted to. Jake would probably want to invent or create something having anything and everything available.
I don't think there are any selfless acts. Christ of course is the only example I can think of.
Love the way you think!

jo said...

I believe the term you are looking for is called accepting grace. You cant describe it until you have actually experienced it