One last little piece of the illusion of selfishness. We've seen that there is no credible evidence for an afterlife where people are rewarded or punished for anything, and we can see evidence all around us that supernaturals are not providing for the real needs of people. We can even see that the figures who serve as examples of behavior in various religious traditions habitually took responsibility for their own well-being, as they were able. Still, we encounter this idea that focusing on your own personal growth is selfish time and again, especially from religious leaders. Perhaps one final piece of the problem is our tendency toward either/or thinking.
Our brains still work in mysterious ways, even as science continues to reveal more and more about human thinking and tendencies. Thinking in either/or propositions is a common way to address issues. "Either I can exercise, or I can sit in front of a screen." "Either I'll be a leader, or I'll be a follower." "Either I can focus on my own well-being, or I can tend to the well-being of others." In logic, this kind of argument is called a fallacy -- a "false dichotomy". This flawed thinking isn't necessarily intentional, but it is lazy. There are so many more options than we usually choose to consider, and we often fail to seek out both/and solutions, maybe because they require a little more work. Our idea of selfishness is caught up in this flawed thinking.
If there really are only two options that we're willing to consider, it may be simply a matter of changing our thinking habits. "I want to exercise, and I also want to watch a movie. How can I figure out a way to do both?" If we really believe that focusing on our own well-being and tending to the well-being of others are competing goals, then we can change our habit of either/or thinking and ask something like, "How can I be personally responsible for my own life and tend to the well-being of others in a satisfying way?" We can re-frame what seems to be a choice between mutually exclusive options once we are willing to admit that our thinking is problematic.
The logical fallacy of our either/or thinking actually disguises something even deeper than the possibility that we can think in terms of both/and propositions. Those who decry selfishness might consider the options to be, "I can do what I want, or I can do what someone else wants." Obviously, to choose what you want is "selfish," and to choose what someone else wants is selfless. Religious traditions often mistakenly teach that selflessness is the preferred option. A more open-minded person might shift to a both/and formula and ask, "How we can we both get what we want?" The most honest question, though, is "What do I really want?"
All of this talk about selfishness only makes sense in terms of surface level desires. When we stay on the surface of our being, we might believe we want things we don't actually want. And we might think we don't want things we actually do want. We might say we don't want to do laundry or wash dishes, but we actually do want clean clothes and dishes. On the surface, we focus on avoiding pain or inconvenience or frustration, but when we get past that and ask what we really want, it becomes clear that doing the laundry and washing the dishes gets us what we actually want. It's a matter of more mature awareness of what we value, not merely a matter of "selfishness."
Likewise, we might say we want something awful to happen to a rude driver, or a malicious co-worker, or an incompetent retail clerk. When we think more deeply about our own lives and experiences, though, we have occasionally done something that inconvenienced (or even endangered) another driver on the road because we were in a hurry or we weren't paying attention. Perhaps we have also made decisions that other people didn't like because it was part of our job. We may even have been thrown off by a simple process because one little thing in our environment was different, or we were distracted by something else in our personal lives.
As much as we may get angry or frustrated when other people's behavior inconveniences us or challenges us, we actually don't want to live in a world where a sort of vicious karma punishes our every mistake with misfortune. We actually want people to be graceful with us when we almost miss our exit on the freeway, or when we make a thoughtful decision that has painful consequences for someone, or when we just have a moment when our brains aren't firing on all cylinders. We want to be known and understood. We want other people to see our inherent worth and dignity -- and to acknowledge and respect our unique abilities and strengths that may have required a lot of hard work to cultivate.
Our anxiety prompts us to hold ourselves apart, to demand something different for our own lives than we hope for in the lives of others. Our fear prompts us to defend our own difficult decisions by mocking the difficult decisions of others. Our fear prompts us to refuse rights to other people because we think their freedom will somehow jeopardize our own rights and freedom. Our fear prompts us toward scarcity thinking, believing that I can't have what I need if someone else gets what they need. Either/or propositions are fueled by our anxiety, just as the idea of "selfishness" is really a way of saying that we allow our fear to convince us that we want something we don't actually want -- our anxiety doesn't let us get past the surface level desires to what we most deeply value.
When we are able to connect with what we most deeply value, we begin to realize that what we want requires well-being in our own lives and well-being in the lives of those around us. When we are willing to cast a vision of wholeness for our lives -- or our neighborhoods, or our workplaces, or the world -- we see that our lives are interconnected with the lives of others, that we cannot experience wholeness and well-being in our lives without contributing to wholeness and well-being in the lives of others. Yet we cannot connect with what we most deeply value, what we most deeply want, without learning to manage our own anxiety and confronting our tendency toward lazy thinking. And we cannot learn to manage our own anxiety or confront our mental laziness by focusing on other people. We have to turn our gaze inward and develop our own selves if we want to maximize the meaningful contribution we are able to make in the world.
So, there is really no such thing as selfishness. There are degrees of emotional immaturity and maturity. There are habits of lazy, flawed thinking that we can change and develop into more mature, intentional thought processes. There are anxious, fear-driven reactions that keep us from living with integrity to what actually matters most to us. And there are more emotionally mature, self-aware actions that align with our deepest values and create greater wholeness in our own lives and the lives of others. Well-being is only an either/or proposition when we allow our flawed, surface level, anxious, scarcity thinking to run the show. When we are honest, we acknowledge that well-being in our own lives is inextricably connected to well-being in the lives of others. And when we focus on our own capacity to clarify our deepest values and live with integrity to those values, we transform the world.