Posted by: Mike
[The second installment of “Uncertainty will follow at a later date”]
The American Heritage Dictionary defines narcissism as “excessive love or admiration of oneself.” The New Oxford American Dictionary elaborates–for psychology–with the following: “extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type.” Selfish is defined by the American Heritage as “concerned chiefly or only with oneself without regard for the well-being of others.” And the New Oxford writes, “lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.”
For most of us, when we were growing up, our elders would too frequently caution or admonish us to, “Don’t be selfish.” For most of us it was drummed into our ears and brains: selfishness is bad; unselfishness is good; and there didn’t seem to be anything in between! I expect that for many of us, we haven’t really revisited the issue in any depth since our childhood or really considered carefully what it means to be either selfish or unselfish. To be sure, in moving through life we have all had many instances involving interactions or observations of family members, acquaintances, friends, and people in general in which we identified for ourselves situations of individual selfishness or unselfishness. But for many of us, we have retained in our minds the black and white criteria: selfishness is good; unselfishness is bad. Let’s take another look at the issue. What is the reality here? What brought it to mind today was listening to a radio interview of a very famous woman writer, actor, and activist, who is generally thought of as an excellent role model, who has without a doubt accomplished a great deal and influenced many for good; and who also presents herself as extremely generous, compassionate, concerned and involved with multiple causes for the public good. In listening to the lady, despite her exceedingly positive reputation and her own self-proffered statements of her generosity and almost all-consuming generosity to others and her selflessness, there leaks through in her presentation and in her books a clear signal that she has always done everything that she has wanted to do and that she doesn’t let the needs and interests of others, even those that she is primarily responsible for, stand in her way. It is clear that, despite her protestations of her selflessness, she is clearly very selfish, no matter how many good things for others that she has done in her life.
The purpose of the critical comments expressed above was not to malign this unsuspecting American writer and hero, who has accomplished far more good in the world that most of us combined will! It was obviously to make the point that we must look at selfishness with a more meandering and somewhat more generous eye than many of us have to date. And if we were to look at more of us common folk, like you and me, and review our decisions and choices, not only the big ones but those that we make day to day and moment to moment, we are likely to see that we often make choices to suit ourselves, and in many ways override a reasonable consideration of others. In most of our relationships it is likely that we engage in a quid pro quo; when we are at our best, we attempt to engage in an equal exchange with others; we get something and they get something in return. When we are left to our own devices, we generally seek to meet our own needs, but with some under-riding sense of responsibility to the individuals that we are primarily responsible for (family), to friends, employers and fellow workers, and to society as a whole. But if we view ourselves and others honestly, in general we are all quite selfish. We may try to hide it; and we do try to hide it; and we often elaborately make a show of our unselfishness (likely because we are still following those black and white rules that we were taught as children). But we remain selfish.
If you look carefully at most people who have obtained any position of note in society, on the international or national scene, or even in your own community, it can be seen that virtually all of them have had a singlemindedness, a selfishness, that at times has neglected the interests of others – and in many instances involved running roughshod over others. I’m not praising such behavior here; just acknowledging it. And stating that to accomplish anything in life that requires considerable effort and some competition, the principles that we are discussing here are at work, success requires some selfishness for accomplishment.
If we look back at the definitions that were presented at the beginning of this little essay [The American Heritage Dictionary defines narcissism as “excessive love or admiration of oneself.” The New Oxford American Dictionary elaborates–for psychology–with the following: “extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type.” Selfish is defined by the American Heritage as “concerned chiefly or only with oneself without regard for the well-being of others.” And the New Oxford writes, “lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.”], we see the qualifiers excessive, extreme, concerned chiefly with, without regard for, concerned chiefly with. I think we can see that extreme narcissism is not good for society; that as members of society we do have some responsibilities to society as a whole; that selfishness is often bad, in that it does ignore or reject the legitimate needs and interests of others; but that each of us is – by virtue of our each being a unique individual struggling in the current of life for our own survival and interests – often selfishly guided by our own interests. Perhaps if we can acknowledge our own selfishness and learn to recognize it, then we can exert better control over this natural tendency, which can easily get out of control if unrecognized or identified.