Recent generations are often accused of being self-obsessed. The term ‘the me generation’ implies that, at times, whole groups of people are over-focused on themselves, their own feeling and their own needs. While this may be true at particular times in history, one perhaps has to be careful with definitions of self and other, and with our understanding of what it means to be self-focused or other-focused. It is not necessarily true to say that self-focus is bad. It may be more about a balance between perspectives.
There seems to be evidence that an excess of self-interest causes unhappiness. An easy way to watch this happen, is to watch a couple having an argument. You will often see, during the argument, each person change their attitude dramatically and defensively towards protecting their own self-interest. “You never do such-and-such,” one claims. “That’s because you never do such-and-such,” the other claims. Each side crystallises the other into an enemy who is differentiated by their lack of concern for the ‘home side’.
It happens with individuals, groups, and nations. We find it so easy to consider our own self-interest, or the interest of the home person, family, group or nation… and to demonise others as different, and lacking understanding. It perhaps has its roots in the survival of species: one can see how evolution might favour groups who looked after themselves.
But, in a civilised, peaceful society, such self-interest is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It causes an unnecessary imbalance of interests between rich and poor, haves and have-nots, races, genders and creeds.
There is another interpretation of self-focus, which is the ability to reflect on one’s own thoughts and feelings. Those who denigrate a ‘me’ generation need to be careful that they are not criticising something they may have become bad at. Of course one can become too obsessed with oneself. But equally, one can fail to achieve the skill of self-examination.
Self-examination also happens with individuals, groups, and nations. The person or society that cannot challenge itself, can become rather humourless and over-assertive. Self-examination can be an excellent skill, because it stops a person or society from being too mindless in its application of its own rules. The person or society that does not self-examine can lack empathy, become arrogant, and throw its power around without discrimination.
If self-interest often causes unhappiness, other-interest often provides light relief. Caring for others can release an individual from fearful self-protectiveness and anxiety. It’s often the case that individuals find relief from depression or anxiety through volunteering to help others, formally or informally.
However, functionally, a balance is necessary in terms of how that volunteering is conducted. Imagine that a person has 100 units of capacity available to help others. They wake up in the morning, and use up 150 units, thinking that they are being extra-caring. Their motivation might be great, but their wisdom is not so great. Effectively, they have done the same thing as a person who overspends money.
It is better to give what is reasonable, having assessed the capacity of the self, than to give more than the mind and body can sustain, and thereby injure oneself mentally or physically. Once injured, we are out of play, even for the purpose of helping others.
It is also important not to mistake other-interest for other-appeasement. Other-appeasement looks like helpfulness, but it is really helping others in order to make them think well of you. This is a kind of self-interest.
We can also become good at examining others’ thoughts and feelings. Since we are like others, this is often best done on a foundation of self-examination. If we just understand others, and not ourselves, we can lose our sense of common humanity, and fail to associate with our fellow beings.
Other-examination can be very helpful – individuals and nations need a capacity to look at others and learn from watching them. But, sooner or later, one discovers the need for diplomacy. Nations, for instance, observe other nations through systems of ambassadors, spies, and researchers. They do not declare to other nations, in an unfiltered manner, what they know – unless they want to provoke an argument.
In the same way, a person who is good at observing others, also needs to learn how to communicate and use what they know, and not to abuse that information, or offend others with premature judgement.
We all need both self-focus, and other-focus – the ability to attend to ourselves, and to others.
In terms of interests, acting exclusively in one’s own interests can create poor health, and be socially difficult. In contrast, caring for others can provide great relief… as long as we attend to our own self-care.
In terms of what we examine, self-examination is a great foundation for general understanding of all beings. We can also become good at understanding others, but we need to balance this with great diplomacy, and use our knowledge well.
In short, it is healthy to be selfless, as long as this is balanced with self-care. And it is wise to understand both oneself and others, as long as this is balanced with discretion.