The Selfishness Epidemic

I am selfish.

I am needy.

I don’t want to be, but I am like a moth drawn to a flame.

I don’t want to be, because I know that, even when I get or achieve that thing I want, there is just the next thing. The next thing to accomplish, get, experience, feel…

I was playing a game the other day, and I had made my plan. I had a few steps envisioned that would get me into a better position.  Very quickly, every path I had was cut off by an opponent. I suddenly had no plan. I felt like the options were gone, and the whole game suddenly felt very unsatisfying.  I am ashamed to say that I became irritable and rude to my fellow players.  Granted, it was just a game. I could get up, apologize for my sour attitude, and move on with my life.  But what about when life feels like that?

If my life is built around seeing certain things happen, then when more complications come, or my plans become disrupted, it can feel hugely destabilizing.  It is loss.  Similarly, if my desires begin to shift due to disappointments or evolving perspectives, and I don’t even know what I really want anymore, that too is destabilizing.  Part of the problem is that our culture has brainwashed us to think that self-fulfillment and self-actualization are what will lead to happiness. Therefore, if we don’t know what we want, or if we aren’t as good at something as we thought we should be, we can feel like we have failed.

“Self.” “Me.” “My.” Much of our culture says each of us is the center of our own lives. We are each at the center of our dreams and hopes. No wonder selfishness feels so normal. Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation has “self-actualization” as the pinnacle of his hierarchy of needs with the goal of achieving one’s “ideal self.” This ‘focus-on-your-needs-and-achieve-your-potential’ mentality feels very normal in our present-day life in the United States. The theory seems to posit that if we can discover who we are and achieve what we are capable of being, then we can find happiness… This framework can analyze the lives of successful people who made a difference in society and conclude that they achieved self-actualization because they realized their full potential through doing great work for society (e.g., Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela). Therefore—it could be extrapolated—a person who wants to achieve happiness should focus on his development opportunities, and find challenges to enhance his skills and realize his full potential.

I think this framing cheapens the accomplishments of history if they are really about individual “selves” achieving their potential. If we all have this individualized lens in looking at both history and our little dot of a life in the grand scheme of history, do we expect that perspective (e.g., making my goal achieving my potential) to bring peace and satisfaction?  One reason it can’t bring satisfaction is that it is too small and weak. Another reason is that it causes tremendous stress to have to figure out my potential and to worry constantly about whether or not I am on track to achieve it. How do I recover from feelings of failure, except to either lower my standard or re-double my efforts?

For example, I might have a vision for an ideal of mothering that I think I should be able to achieve based on my knowledge and potential. And maybe there are days when I live it out well. But what about the other days where I fail…and what about the uncertainty of the “product” because I can’t actually control if each of my five children will be happy, safe, secure, emotionally/physically/spiritually healthy, and successful in their own lives? To give another example, what about the ideal of career success that I believe, if unhindered, I could achieve? If I am not advancing towards it, peace or satisfaction feel far off, and then I might tend to blame and resent the things in my life keeping me from that ideal of success (maybe even my spouse or my children, who require so much of my emotional energy). I will be tempted to say no to anything that could hold me back, and in the process will undermine my ability to experience or live out real unconditional love, which the Bible describes with words like “it does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…” (I Corinthians 13:5-7).

There is in fact a much more compelling vision for life that is not focused on “self,” lived out most compellingly in the life of Jesus. In fact, I believe the real core of human relationships and human meaning in the world must be grounded in love, not self. The only way to move away from my selfishness is to replace myself as the center of my life. But it can’t be another person in my circle. They also can’t handle being the center. None of us have the right gravity. We can’t handle keeping things going without everything crashing into itself. We don’t have the ability to set up the world perfectly to sustain life—spinning at just the right speed, with just the right distance from the sun, with just the right gravity from the moon to keep the tides going, with just the right atmosphere so that the water cycle works, and all the other myriad of details that only God can handle.

So it is God who must be at the center, not me.  But why do I keep trying to claw my way back into the center? I somehow can even make it about me when my children disobey me (don’t they know how hard it makes it for me when they do that?). I make things about me when I worry about possibly offending someone that I barely know, because somehow I think it deeply matters if they think I am a good person. I am not actually that important.

Freedom comes from grounding myself in the love God has so graciously shown to me, and from knowing that, as someone made in His image (Genesis 1:27), I get to reflect his goodness and be part of what he is doing in the world. That means being part of serving other people, seeing them as more important than myself (Philippians 2:3), because I see them as equally beautiful and made in God’s image, just like me.  I can be free to fail, because I know that when I admit my weakness, it all the more reflects just how good God is as he loves and restores and transforms me. I am at rest because I am relationally loved and secure, and I can be part of that rest for others as I share that love with them.

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