Monday, February 24, 2014

Selfishness Shouldn't Be A 4-Letter Word

Believe it or not, you're selfish. (Or as the kids today might tweet, "bro ur selfish af.")

So am I.

I mention our selfishnesses because I believe the word "selfish" is being unfairly represented in modern American usage, and I'd like a moment of your time to see if I can get you to agree with me on a redefinition that might give us all a more accurate phraseology for discussions of The Human Condition.

First, I need you to understand that selfishness is important. That is not my opinion, but rather a fact, for if you were not in some way selfish, you would do absolutely anything anyone ever asked of you (or nothing at all whatsoever). (And by the way, if you're female and you do absolutely anything anyone ever asks of you, hit me up right now, because that means you're a no-cost whore, and I want to try some crazy shit.)

Even Catholic nuns are selfish in that they themselves wish to give their lives to the church's service, which means there's some sort of self in there that is church-inclined and would not automatically submit to an invitation into my sexual crucible. Mother Teresa, for instance, was selfish in that she felt that being around the dying made her feel closer to God.

Do you think she would have kept doing it if it made her feel bored and spiritually disconnected, just because some missionary had told her to? And even if so, should we be championing and sanctifying the bored and spiritually disconnected? The miserable? That's the right direction?

Like it or not, her actions were based on a form of selfishness.

The key to me seems to be somehow finding a selfishness where you are capable of invigorating self-navigation but where you don't veer wildly into becoming a greedy pirate asshole bastard.

Much-loved/much-hated philosopho-author Ayn Rand's writings introduced a concept to me that I've been turning over ever since: Rational vs. Irrational Selfishness.

I believe the difference between the two concepts accounts for why some people are wonderful and some people are loathsome. 

An easy way of explaining the difference is like so: You are playing basketball, and there are five seconds left on the game clock. Your team is losing by one point, and the ball is passed to you, but you are being covered by two players on defense, which means one of your teammates has a wide-open shot. The irrationally selfish person forces a bad shot in the hopes of claiming both the victory and a great proportion of the credit for the victory, and is willing to risk a low-percentage shot and his own team losing in that pursuit, whereas the rationally selfish player zings a pass over to the open teammate, for the much more likely, and much easier, but less personally glorifying, victory.

Please understand, however, that there is a story about basketball legend Larry Bird, where he took such a shot himself, with permission from his teammates, based on this paraphrased assertion and assurance: "There's nobody else in this gym who practiced taking 200 of these shots every day this summer."

I believe that, too, stands for rational, rather than irrational, selfishness.

In a team sport, the rational goal is the team's victory, whereas the irrational goal is personal glory. Larry Bird made the shot and received both—team victory and personal glory—but only because he was rationally selfish enough to practice harder than everyone else in the league.

Or maybe you could look at it this way: The aforementioned Ayn Rand—who wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness, to show you just how much she believed in this stuff—said in an interview once that she would rather herself die than her beloved husband, because she loved her husband more than herself. In that way, it is a selfish choice, even though it ends in literal selflessness.

Anyway, that's pretty much the gist of it. When I say someone is a good dude, it's because he takes care of his own shit and has an empathy for the existential plight of his other human teammates, whereas when I say someone is a fuckin' dick, it's because he's irrationally selfish enough to disregard accountability and empathy in a hollow, lifelong search for fleeting narcissistic reassurance. And a similar split, with different terms, can be found with women.

The problem is that life is both an individual and a team sport. You pilot a unique self, but you are also a member of the family of humanity. You are the most important person in the world to yourself, but everyone else is in the same position.

Life is a walk on a tightrope—it's very easy to fall on either side, into slavish selflessness or reprehensible selfishness. (As St. Augustine said, "Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.") Thus, the challenge is in finding a balance that can bring you (and me) closer to the rationally selfish goal of a better life for the self and a better world for all.

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