Am I Selfish?   Leave a comment


All of us are concerned that when we give others enough freedom, they will take advantage of us.  They will think only of themselves, and we will get left with too few resources–whether money, time, attention, benefits, or what have you.  It is a realistic concern–watch any playground with children (… or adults), but our desire for boundaries against the incursions of others seems to smack against the command to love, to be unselfish.  We have often tried to sort through this tension by making a distinction between “need” and “want.”  What we need is legitimate to fight for, but what we want should often go unfulfilled for the sake of another.

I think our distinction between need and want slowly worked itself into a spectrum represented at one end by absolute necessity (what we need to survive) and at the other end by mild wishes.  We tend to assign “needs” an objective value (actual need) and “wants” a subjective value (just a feeling) and to downplay our desires.  No matter how intense your feelings, I will judge them as only a “want” if they do not pass the objective test for “needs.”  My attitude will be “get a grip!”

With this approach I determine how much to give or support someone by making an objective comparison between their need and my own need.  When someone asks for money, I immediately consider whether they “need” this or just “want” it.  I compare their level of need to my own, and if their need is greater, I feel obligated to help out.  If I don’t give, I feel under a great deal of pressure to justify my decision (they don’t deserve it, they are not my responsibility, it would be bad for them, etc.).  But this rarely works to fully relieve my conscience, so I feel guilty of selfishness.  I tend to assume the equation: their (genuine) need + my ability = my obligation.


Given this perspective, I must constantly evaluate whether my desire is a “need” or a “want.”  But I find that nearly impossible to determine except for the extremes (physical survival and slight desire).  When I take this route, I find myself using “objective” evaluation of my need to constantly critique my subjective feelings, my wants.  The more it is tied to my feelings, the more likely I am to be dismissive so that my self-care is constantly under attack.  The more conscientious I am, the more I tend to minimize my own desires, downgrading them from needs to wants, interpreting self-care as selfishness (a lack of adequate concern for others).  But shushing our feelings is a pretty sure way of losing touch with our true heart.  God gave us emotions for a reason, so it seems to me ignoring them is going to get us into trouble (I know it has done a great deal of damage to me personally).

I think the “objective” distinction between needs and wants as I presented it here can be a dangerous interpretation of selfishness.  Leaving aside superficial desires that cost me little to miss, I’d like to propose an alternative distinction: true wants/needs versus false ones.  The stronger my desire, the more likely it is to have its roots in an important need, and it is vital for myself and my relationships–for health and growth–to satisfy that need.  Regardless of how trivial my desire looks from an “objective” view, my emotions are cluing me in to an important need.

The major problem I find with this perspective is that I often misconstrue my true needs.  I mistake applause for love, success for worth. I mistake conformity for community, popularity for acceptance… and the list goes on.  My main problem is not selfishness that results in satisfying my desires, but confusion that results in “satisfying” my false desires and neglecting my true ones.  If I am hungry for applause, it is a genuine and important hunger that is calling out, but the true need is not approval, so no amount of praise will satisfy my hunger (as no amount of dry leaves will satisfy my empty belly).  I may think the solution is to “humble” myself and stop seeking applause (to basically deny that I have a need).  I tried that all my life and my genuine hunger remained.  What finally worked for me was identifying my true need (that was tricky) and finding a means to satisfy it with God’s help.

I would like to suggest that it is never a good moral decision to sacrifice my true needs/desires.  I am ultimately responsible for my own health and growth, to receive the grace of God for my needs.  God, not I, is responsible to provide the grace for everyone’s individual needs.  I may or may not be a channel of his grace to others, but it would be morally wrong for me to choose to forgo meeting my own true needs so as to meet another’s needs.  That is not selflessness, it is self abuse, and it confounds God’s role with mine.  I suggested earlier that physical survival was an obvious case of objective need, but is it truly?  I believe I can sacrifice my life for another without injuring myself, but I may never choose to sacrifice my soul.  I believe we are best alerted to our deepest objective needs by our emotions rather than our logic, and through reflection in the context of true community we discover their true nature.


Posted September 15, 2011 by janathangrace in thoughts

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