"SELFLESSNESS": 7 WAYS TO GET IT WRONG
An effort to sort real selflessness from the phony
“Selflessness”: 7 Ways to Get It Wrong
An effort to sort real selflessness from the phony
“Selflessness” can be a beautiful thing.
It shows up, sometimes unexpectedly, in even the most gritty and mundane of life experiences. It’s a key ingredient. in the love of a parent for a child, the valor of a hero, the artist or scientist who “loses themselves” in their work. It can be as transcendent as a scientific breakthrough or as humdrum as a dirty diaper.
Something about this alluring dynamic that fascinates us, inspires us, and sometimes even moves us, profoundly.
Yet it often affects us for reasons we don’t always understand entirely. Most of us are pretty clear on its opposite – selfishness – and we instinctively know that there’s something incomplete or missing or even downright wrong there.
But what, exactly? It’s hard to pin down. It's sometimes referred to as lacking, transcending, or even killing "ego." But translating these lofty ideas to reality can be incredibly tricky. Whatever it is, it seems to be something mysterious, powerful, and sometimes, in certain moments, incredibly beautiful.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t screw it up.
Call it “The Law of Universal Screwupability,” or something even sillier. The basic idea is that no spiritual or philosophical idea, insight, or experience is so good or profound that it’s immune to us screwing it up.
We could even hypothesize that more often than not, every idea, insight, or spiritual idea, spread widely enough over a long enough period, will eventually be misunderstood, miscommunicated, or misapplied, often to an absurd degree. Name any idea, so matter how profound or insightful, and we can probably rattle off scores of ways that we either can screw it up, or already have.
This includes even something as seemingly innocent and incorruptible as “selflessness.”
If we ever try to “do” selflessness, deliberately and consciously, we often discover, fairly quickly, that it’s a bit trickier than it seems.
So, can we possibly get selflessness “wrong”?
Here are a few ways.
1) Selflessness as a strategy
This is “selflessness is a means to an end.” The idea is basically this: “I want happiness, or enlightenment, or love, Etc, and I’ve been told that selflessness is how I'll get it.” So, this turns into a self trying to do “the selfless thing” in order for that self to get what it wants. In a nutshell: it’s a self trying not to be a self.
2) Selflessness as a pose
This is the classic “I want to look selfless to others.” So, I might write a check donating the equivalent of loose pocket change to some cause or other (with maximum tax write-offs), hold a press conference about it, and send out press releases. This dynamic is a first cousin of the Martyr Complex, with the hope for a grand, dramatic, perhaps tragic action that everyone will one day, finally, see and understand. So in this sense, it’s really a strategy for a self to feel appreciated.
3) Selflessness as giving in to others’ selfishness
There’s real selflessness, and there are various impostors. “Real” selflessness seems to be something along the lines of not just being aware of the perspectives of others, but adopting them as ones’ own – or even a situation where the entire idea of “my perspective” verses “others’” becomes an irrelevant non-issue. That’s one thing. It’s another thing entirely for a person to allow themselves to be dominated by those around them. Something can look like selflessness while actually being something closer to "codependency. The line between the two can seem thin. But what is that line? A key factor seems to be the issue of whether someone has really known, understood, or taken hold of themselves to start with. There’s a phrase that was once popular: “you have to become somebody before you become nobody” (Jack Engler). This phrase implies that there’s a condition where one hasn’t really “become a self” yet. (It’s surprisingly easy these days). It could be like wanting to be a philanthropist, but being broke. In order to give money away, first you need to have money.
4) Selflessness as nihilism
Dabblers in Buddhism sometimes seem to hear a few fragments about the idea of “no-self,” and soon decide they’ve got it all figured out. “Hey, we don’t really exist anyway, so you know, do what you want!” – is roughly how the idea usually gets translated. It soon boils down – in a few words – to soft nihilism in its most mundane and widespread forms. It sometimes even morphs into hard nihilism disguised as spirituality. All of that is a far cry, though, from genuine anattā, as one of the three marks of existence. Real anattā is a bit more nuanced. Prominent Buddhists have roundly and thoroughly rejected the nihilistic interpretation.* But even if that wasn't the case, nonchalant nihilism often eventually becomes no different the routine, run-of-the-mill, self-amusement course of life anyway. (aka, “Do what you want!”) Under the weight of a big enough load of nihilism, even pretending it’s anything spiritual can seem pointless, too.
5) Selflessness as self-loving
A widely-assumed idea is in the air these days: “In order to love others, you first have to love yourself.” Like a lot of ideas, there seems to be some truth in it. If someone has a highly dysfunctional relationship with themselves – if they hate themselves, for example – it seems likely that their love towards others will be less than perfect. That said, as is the case with most good ideas, it’s also possible to take this too far. (See the now ironclad “Law of Universal Screwupability,” above.) Sometimes this takes the form of “I’m going to love myself first, then I’ll love others later.” But sometimes the “later” never really comes, there’s no graduation up to the “love others” stage, and the entire effort stalls out at mere narcissism.
6) Selflessness at gunpoint
Some see selflessness as a good thing, and then decide to go around imposing it on everyone else in the world by way of external force. It tries to compel a mandated selflessness “from the outside in,” so to speak. The basic approach, in so many words, is “Either be selfless, or you’ll be sent to the Gulag.” This could mean that in some cases, for example, socialism is selflessness at gunpoint. But the typical result of forced selflessness isn’t actual, genuine selflessness, but self-negation. It doesn’t lead to a community of the selfless, but tyranny. The result isn’t a population of saints, but of regular folks who have to pretend to be saints in order to survive (or in order to protect their “selves.”) Self-negation – perhaps unsurprisingly – doesn’t seem to be a good foundation for a happy life on a wide scale. It seems contrary to human nature. We’ve learned some of this the hard way (if we’ve learned it at all.) Selflessness, it seems, if it’s going to be genuine, has to be freely chosen. It has to be lived “from the inside-out.” It can’t be imposed from the outside-in. Selflessness by way of involuntarily negating the self might be like bludgeoning a caterpillar because it isn’t yet a butterfly, and not giving it room to form a chrysalis.
7) “Everyone should be selfless (except me).”
Sometimes someone glimpses selflessness as a wonderful thing, and then decides to tout it as something everyone really should do. What this means, more precisely, is that it’s something everyone else really should do. This one is as old as the hills: “Everyone should be selfless (except for me).” (Elaborate reasoning often follows this position.) It leads to individuals talking about selflessness, and even expecting it of others, all while letting themselves off the hook entirely. It works in harmony with the dynamics of #2 above: it adopts a pose of selflessness as a status symbol, trying to soak in the fringe benefits of it on the cheap. (This might seem to be picking on politicians, but just to be fair, this can also apply to non-politicians.)
So, where does all this leave us?
Again: real selflessness can be a beautiful thing. It's something worth striving for.
But when striving for it, it’s apparently pretty easy to wander pretty far off course.
It’s a difficult topic. Yet it’s also as intimate as it gets – after all, the matter at hand here is our very self.
Given all this, it’s not uncommon to land in what seems like a pool of Yodaesque riddles. "Act without doing; work without effort" (Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching), which points toward the idea of “non-action” or “wu-wei” of Taoism. There’s “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody” from Jack Engler (mentioned earlier) from a more psychological perspective. There’s "The prayer of the monk is not perfect until he no longer recognizes himself or the fact that he is praying" from St. Anthony. And so on.
So let’s try to boil this down a bit.
There seem to be two basic sides to the matter.
There’s “selfishness” on one side. On the opposite side, there’s self-negation, or “forced selflessness.”
If we go too far in one direction – to the right, let’s say – that means becoming completely “self-ish” and abandoning the idea of selflessness entirely.
But if we go too far east, as a kind of rebellion against selfishness, that often means negating the self, or selflessness by way of force, either external or internal.
Going too far in either direction on this level means negating one side or another. It tries to solve a polarity by destroying one of the poles.
There seem to be healthy and toxic ways to relate to each of these.
Genuine selflessness seems to lie somewhere between and beyond both extremes.
When navigating these sorts of foggy marshlands of the soul, a good reference point to keep in mind might be a dirty diaper.
A parent is often called on to become “selfless” when it comes to their child, sometimes to their outermost limits. The idea of waking up at 4am to change a diaper is hardly anyone’s natural idea of fun. The struggles of parenthood aren’t mysterious and have been documented well.
Yet those “burdens” and toils can also be perfectly natural, joyful, spontaneous, and sometimes even, in a strange way, "effortless." A 4am diaper can be a burden of love that somehow mixes an inner cocktail of a powerful, yet subtle, joy. But in this sense, a parent hardly thinks, “I’m going to be selfless now!” in a self-conscious way (which, it has to be said, isn’t really selfless.) In these moments, the parent is often just thinking about that diaper, and how to cope with the terrors within it.
So basically, we can arrive here: this stuff is complicated.
It’s full of paradox. It's a good place not to be heavy-handed. It's a job that calls more for mental ballet than intellectual bulldozing.
Or, to use a different word: it’s messy.
Granted, “It’s messy!” isn’t the kind of answer most of us relish. These days, we often prefer answers that are clean, simple, and wrong.
A good working rule of thumb then, it seems, is to ride the paradox: respect both sides of the dilemma, however difficult it might be. This means neither negating ourselves (forced selflessness), but at the same time not giving in to ourselves entirely (rejecting selflessness). It means neither putting ourselves entirely at the center of it all, but also not putting ourselves entirely at the periphery of it all.
And maybe at some point, if we can hold that tension between those two sides, the problem itself will eventually become obsolete, at least in some key moments. Sometimes, even at 4am, the entire problem of “me” versus “not-me” just doesn’t exist. All that matters is that diaper needs to be changed. The rest becomes irrelevant. That can be an unselfconscious, natural, egoless, “just doing.” Maybe that’s a little taste of wu wei.
Maybe in all this we can look not just for ways not to just affirm or negate ourselves, but to know ourselves in a deeper way.
Maybe a good course here is to keep it messy. (Our navigations through life, that is. Not our diapers.)
And maybe sometimes, somewhere in that tension between "self" and "not-self," that "mess" can suddenly seem perfect.