My brother recently used the word “selflessness” in one of his poems, and it brought up a thought process I’d had on that word a long time ago. Some 30+ years ago, someone (I’ve long forgotten whom) suggested I read The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand. I did so, though it felt very dry to me and took me longer (much, much longer) than the time in which I normally read a book.
I cannot remember more than the basic theory of “selfishness” as seen by the author. But there was one part of it that has stuck in my brain and remains there, obviously, still today, though it is seldom called upon. According to Rand, and some definitions across the Internet, selflessness is giving no thought to yourself and doing/giving to another without getting a single thing from the interaction.
Pretty much my regular readers and people who know me in real life know that I rate fairly high on the list of people who are ‘givers’. But guess what, only once in many, many years of giving to others have I been able to think of an action I performed that was selfless.
You see, while I am very quick to be giving to others, those actions are also a benefit to me. I like to help other people, like to bring joy to other people, like knowing that, in whatever way, I’m making life a little bit easier for someone else. In other words, while I’m giving something tangible to another, I am getting a positive emotional experience in return. That is an experience that happens and that I can count on happening. So my actions aren’t truly selfless.
Only once do I remember doing something that, as I look back now, I consider might fit into the ‘selfless’ list. It was probably 5 or so years ago. I was leaving the grocery store and saw a man in tearful distress practically ripping his car apart on the inside while a younger woman (daughter or granddaughter I suspect) was trying to calm him down. I walked over to see if I could be of some assistance. Apparently, he’d put a folded $100 bill in the pocket of his shorts to spend at the store when he left home, and by the time they got to the check-out, it was gone. He had no other money on him, so the female with him paid for his groceries and kept assuring him that she was okay with buying the groceries for him. After ripping through the car’s interior, he said that he suspected that it had fallen out of his pocket in one of the aisles in the store. I suggested the other female and I walk into the store to look for it. As soon as we were far enough away that he couldn’t hear us, I told her that there was a really slim chance that, if he did in fact drop it in an aisle, we could expect to find it, but we quickly scanned each aisle. When that was unsuccessful, I walked up to the ATM at the front of the store, withdrew $100, handed it to her, and asked her to give it to him and tell him it was a “random act of kindness”. I quickly left the store and proceeded back to my vehicle again, which was parked 3 aisles away. I got in my car and quickly left the store because I didn’t want him to do anything except accept that it was a random act of kindness. The thing is, it was such a spontaneous gesture that I never had a moment to think about what I would be getting in return for it. To be honest, there was no emotion involved in my action – my brain just told me it was the right thing to do and so I did it.
I forgot about the event as quickly as I knew it was the right thing to do in that moment and only by the word selfless coming into focus again made me think about it. It truly is the one time I can remember giving to another without seeking for or receiving acknowledgement that I’ve done so!
Sure, I make some large-sized donations from time to time at our local food bank (or used to before the prices quickly tripled on everything!), and I’ve filled countless boxes of items to donate to non-profit thrift stores as I continue to ‘simplify’ my life. But it’s always in my head, while I’m packing up boxes of lightly used items or carrying boxes of non-perishable foods to the door of the food bank that someone – even if I don’t know whom – will benefit from what I am giving. And that is the happiness that brings me joy.
So, for me, there is a large distinction between being selfish, unselfish and selfless. I don’t give to others so that I can feel that joy – it’s simply a by-product of my being giving. So, I’m not being selfish. But is my giving unselfish if I get a positive experience as a result? And other than that one time I described, I don’t ever recall being selfless.
But, I’m not saying that it’s wrong not to be selfless. Yes, I may get something from being a giving person, but it is never more than what the person who is on the receiving end. Luke 6:38 says, in fact, to “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” Honestly, I hope I never need that, but it’s calming to think that I would receive back if the need arose.
2 thoughts on “Selflessness”
I don’t know I’d even give too much concern over whether or not feeling good about something nice you’ve done means you’re not selfless, really (though I suppose you’d have to agree on a definition to use as a comparison since there are stricter meanings of the term).
I admit it’s not my default setting to help people (panhandler types, is what I have in mind currently); but I have on a couple of occasions recently bought a sandwich or soup and water for people outside the grocery store. It’s far easier for me to consider food bank donations or some such.
I’m not sure I’d argue that ‘selfish’ is altogether bad, though. Like anything else, it’s a matter of degree — and you probably have to do a fair bit of ignoring the criticism of other people (which is easy for me, but not always easy for everyone) — and it also relies on how you define the term. I think considering yourself before others ultimately means you’re able to be in a position to help others; but even this is considered selfish by people you’ll meet in life. As Polonius says: To thine own self be true.
I try not to do anything I’ll regret later — I’m not always successful. But I try.
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I agree that some selfishness is needed in our own lives. It took me years to learn that I deserved to give myself as much as I give to others. Like you, I get a bit cringy at the panhandler type, cynically led to believe that anyone on the street asking for money will use it to buy alcohol and not to fill their stomachs. And I believe we all try not to do things we’ll regret later – and none of us is always successful! 🙂
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