When we are young, we are often taught ‘not to be selfish’. We are taught this by parents and carers who want to make sure that we fit into society, and make good, caring relationships. They themselves might not be good examples; it is common for parents who behave selfishly, to still try to train their children to think of others. A cloth does not always look like the silver it is polishing.
The societal theory of selflessness involves the idea that society works better if its individual units bend to the shape of the wider ‘good’. So, a soldier sacrifices their safety to make life safe for future generations. A nurse sacrifices their sleep, to ensure that their patients are not left alone. Or a teacher sacrifices their time to ensure that their pupils have well-structured learning.
Of course, in a market economy, the soldier, the nurse, or the teacher could just be working for their pay, regardless of the good they do. This is a question of personal motivation. Also, the society itself could just be manipulating the soldier, nurse or teacher to propagate false ideals for the purpose of control. This is a question of societal integrity.
Moving to the individual in more detail, it is partly a question of health. On the side of selflessness, there is much research that indicates that people are happier if they think in terms of giving, gratitude and generosity; and, conversely, that health suffers if people become self-focused and self-grasping.
However, it is also true that the extreme of obsessive selflessness, denying one’s own mind and body sustenance, can also damage health. We need food, water, relaxation, warmth, social comfort, and other things to survive and thrive.
The best balance, therefore, seems to be this.
- In general, try to train your mind to think of others before yourself. Develop kindness and generosity (compassion); and understand deeply that you and your perspective are not the centre of the universe (wisdom)
- In order to stay healthy, ensure that you care for yourself, and provide for yourself what you need to survive and thrive
- Keep selflessness as your general personal motivation, but be critically wary of societies which you suspect may be manipulating your sense of ‘the general good’ for the purposes of control
Be primarily kind, but exercise self-care, and be critically aware.