The Opposite of Selfishness

By Bo Chagnon

Thank you for this opportunity to share some of my ideas. I am truly blessed.

Let’s start with what I mean by selfishness.

You might say that selfishness is putting yourself first, but that’s the definition of pride.

So, I would say that selfishness is putting yourself first in line.

But, now, there are many ways to think about putting yourself first in line.

One way is to identify selfishness as something impolite. Then, the opposite of selfishness is politeness. In this way, selfishness is a description of particular actions.

Another way is to identify selfishness as a frame of reference. One might say that selfishness is a manifestation of a frame of reference in which it is OK to put yourself first in line.

I believe that humans are confronted with several dualities, and the tasks of becoming fully human, finding spiritual fulfillment, and realizing happiness depend upon how we resolve those dualities.

I call one of the dualities the duality of motivation. We all have the motivation to do what is best for ourselves, and we all have the motivation to do what is best for everyone.

But I’m ahead of myself.

In the Middle Ages the opposite of selfishness was selflessness. This notion has been carried forward to the word “altruism”. So, you could say that the opposite of selfishness is altruism.

Unfortunately, it has been proved that altruism does not exist. The argument goes that any action a person takes is taken for that person’s own benefit. If someone does something which helps others, it is because the person perceives a personal benefit from that action. No actions are selfless.

Therefore, the argument continues, everything anyone does is actually selfish. Now, there’s a concept in that conclusion with which I fully agree.

However, I question the motivation for constructing an argument which leads to the conclusion that everyone is selfish.

I have a feeling that the desire to prove that altruism does not exist comes from a frame of reference in which the duality of motivation has been resolved by selecting the motivation to do what is best for one’s self. The argument justifies that frame of reference by demonstrating that everyone does what is best for their own selves, and shows that if you think you are doing things for others, you’re deluding yourself.

On the other hand, someone who has selected the motivation to do what is best for everyone might see the argument as folly.

Let’s review. The argument concludes that everything anyone does is actually selfish. There is a concept in that conclusion with which I fully agree.

The concept is that everyone wants to be happy, and anything anyone does is connected with the desire to be happy.

Selfishness is a partner with the belief that happiness is found by doing what is best for one’s self.

So, with the language I’ve been using selfishness would be a frame of reference which includes the selection of the motivation to do what is best for one’s self.

The opposite of selfishness would be a frame of reference which includes the selection of the motivation to do what is best for everyone.

Which is kind of clumsy. It would be nicer if the opposite of selfishness was a single word.
So, I looked for one.
My search led to the Golden Rule: Do Unto Others As They Wish You Would Do Unto Them.
That sure does sound to me like an admonition to select the motivation to do what is best for everyone. All the world’s religions have a version of the Golden Rule.

When I first heard it, I thought it was a rule designed to control people’s behavior. I thought that you ought to follow that rule because if you didn’t, people wouldn’t like you, and it would threaten your self-interest.

I believed then that happiness could be found by doing what was best for myself.

It was a very long time before I realized that when the mystics, the prophets, the enlightened ones, whose wisdom led to religious belief systems, said the equivalent of the Golden Rule, what they were really saying was that the best way to find happiness is to do what is best for everyone.

So, now, the opposite of selfishness is to find happiness by following the Golden Rule – or something like that.

Still too long.

I recall a service address delivered by a Pentacostal Elder. He said that in the Old Testament when there was evil in the World, God sent destruction. In the New Testament, when there is evil in the World, God sends Grace. Grace is the power to cope with the evil.

I was transformed. I had thought that grace was something that God’s favorite people had, as in “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Now I think that grace is a power that we all are endowed with, so long as we can find it. It’s the power to cope with evil, but most importantly, it is the power to be happy.

I think the mystics and prophets have told us that if we want to connect with the power to be happy, we should do what is best for everyone.

It may seem that the way to be happy is to do the things which benefit yourself. However, doing things which are best for everyone connects you with grace, which is the power to be happy.

Therefore, the opposite of selfishness is gracefulness.

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