We’re highly attuned to the notion that being selfish is one of the worst character traits we might possess, a way of behaving associated with greed, entitlement and cruelty. And yet some of the reason we fail to have the lives we should spring from an excess of the very opposite trait: lack of selfishness.
We’re highly attuned to the notion that being selfish is one of the worst character traits we might possess, a way of behaving associated with greed, entitlement and cruelty. And yet some of the reason we fail to have the lives we should springs from an excess of the very opposite trait: from an overweaning modesty, an over-hasty deference to the wishes of others, a dangerous and counter-productive lack of selfishness.
We are at risk because we collectively fail to distinguish between good and bad versions of selfishness. The good, desirable kind involves the courage to give priority to ourselves and our concerns at particular points; the confidence to be forthright about our needs, not in order to harm or conclusively reject other people, but in order to serve them in a deeper, more sustained and committed way over the long term. Bad selfishness, on the other hand, operates with no greater end in view and with no higher motive in mind. We’re not declining to help so as to marshal our resources to offer others a greater gift down the line; we just can’t be bothered.
Unfortunately, afflicted by confusion about this distinction, we frequently fail to state our needs as clearly as we should, with disastrous results precisely for those we’re meant to serve. In order to be a good parent, we may need to have an hour to ourselves every day. We may need to take a long time in a hot shower to mull over events. We may need to do something that seems a bit indulgent, like life-drawing or a clarinet lesson. But because we sense how contrary to expectations these desires can seem, we opt to stay quiet about our requirements – and so grow increasingly ragged, angry and bitter with those who rely on us. A lack of selfishness turns us, slowly, into highly disagreeable as well as ineffective people.
Or, to take another example, we may find that our mind is at its best immediately after dinner and yet know the family tradition of spending twenty minutes tidying up the kitchen together following a meal. We accept that it would look extremely selfish to the others to slip out at this point, we’d be mocked and cast aside, and so we mop the floor and scrub the potato dish and don’t work out how to rearrange the cash flow in the company or practice a speech for the conference – initiatives which would, in the long-term, have been of far greater use to those we love than our resentful and desperate domestic efforts.
Good selfishness grows out of an accurate understanding of what we need in order to maximise our utility for others. It stems from an unembarrassed sense of how we should develop our abilities, get our minds into the right frame, summon up our most useful powers and organize our thoughts and feelings so that they can be eventually helpful to the world. We recognise that we will at select moments have to back out of doing things that people would like us to – and have no compunction about politely explaining this in good time; unlike the selfless who will dutifully smile, then one day explode in vindictive exhausted rage. We know, as kind egoists, that we may be confused with the mean-spirited, but our innate conviction of our sincerity lends us the calm to pursue our aims in our own way. The trick is to become better ambassadors of our intentions, learning persuasively to convey to those around us that we’re not lazy or callous but will simply better serve their needs by not doing the expected things for a while. Sweet people run the strange – but highly important – risk of becoming a nuisance to others by what is only ever superficially a good idea: never putting themselves first.