Hint: Stop Thinking About It
The word “selfish” trended strongly over the past few years.
People who wouldn’t lock down: selfish. People who wouldn’t get the vaccine: selfish. People who rail against economic inequality: selfish (manifested in envy).
The problem with alleging selfishness, though, is that every human action is selfish.
Perhaps the most fundamental law of human existence is this:
“The rational creature . . . cannot wish not to be happy.” Thomas Aquinas.
If we combine this with the fundamental truth that every human is imperfect (less than fully satisfied/happy), we get this result: every human acts in a manner that will make herself happier (better, less imperfect).
Combine that result with the fact that we all constantly act (even the act of choosing not to act is an act), and you realize that every iota of earthly whirl is imbued with selfishness.
You want to accuse people of being selfish? You might as well accuse them of breathing. At best, you can accuse someone of being too selfish, or you can shift the discussion definitionally (“’self-regarding’ isn’t the same as ‘selfishness’!”), but that doesn’t change the fundamental reality of selfishness. You can also accuse someone of breathing too loudly or shift the breathing discussion definitionally (“’breathing’ isn’t the same thing as ‘panting’!”): it doesn’t change the reality that we all breathe and, therefore, to accuse someone merely of breathing falls short of effective criticism.
The Selfishness Paradox
The most frustrating thing of all?
We can’t even be selfless.
We all know it’s a good thing to be selfless: to serve others, to love, to will the good of another.
But by trying to be selfless, aren’t we just being selfish? We want to be selfless because it’s the way to be. It’s a method of improving ourselves, of making ourselves happier, perhaps improving our chance at beatitude.
We’re going to help that old lady across the street whether she wants us to or not. We’re going to sit at the four-way stop and let another driver go ahead of us even though we got there five seconds before her: “Traffic flow be damned . . . I’m going to be selfless!”
Let’s face a disconcerting fact: the person who is most vigorously selfless might be the most selfish of all.
Is Love the Way Out?
You can’t think your way out of the Selfishness Paradox.
But maybe you can love your way out?
The heart, Pascal said, has reasons the head can’t understand. The heart also has tools that the head doesn’t have. The heart’s primary tool: love.
Now, love has a lot of different meanings. I’m using “love” here in its most general, impersonal, sense: attention to other. If you love something, you attend to it. If you attend to it, you’re not attending to yourself. You’re wrapped in “other,” which is the opposite of being wrapped in yourself. Best of all: you didn’t even do it for yourself because, obviously, you did it for the other.
You escaped the Selfishness Paradox.
Or did you?
Did you engage in the act of love in order to further your selflessness . . . and thereby lapse back into the Selfishness Paradox? It’s possible.
“Love” in this sense (attention to other) is closely related to “humility.” Humility is, by classical definition, self-forgetfulness. You simply don’t think about yourself, whether because you’re focused on the other (engaged in an act of love) or suspended in mindfulness meditation (focused on nothing) or merely so totally absorbed in things outside yourself that you just don’t give much thought about yourself.
But you’re still subject to the Selfishness Paradox: if you pursue humility in order to further yourself, you’re still selfish.
How Do We Know What We Can’t Know?
It’s frustrating. We know we’re not supposed to be selfish, but we can’t avoid it. But how can we know that selflessness is good and selfishness is bad if we can’t, you know, know? We all know selfless and loving is the way to be, but there’s a chasm (or door) between what we can understand and what actually is. We can’t use language or logic to explain why selflessness and love are good.
And that’s because language and logic are the tools of essence and being.
Recall the Reality Spectrum:
Act of Existence/the Tao-->Essence/accidents-->Being/substance.
Language and logic are the tools of our existence on the right two-thirds of the Reality Spectrum.
But there are truths that rest on the left side of the Reality Spectrum’s door. Significant, huge, primordial truths. Truths like “selflessness.” Truths that give rise to inescapable paradoxes because, though true, they can’t be articulated by language or explained by logic. They’re true, yes, but because they are part of that far left side of the Reality Spectrum, defy language and logic.
There’s only one door out of the Selfishness Paradox.
It’s the same door Aldous Huxley tried to open with psychedelics. It’s the same door that Pascal opened with his idea of complete detachment.
It’s the door that leads to the Tao.
Reality is a Recurring Reality
The Selfishness Paradox is the second paradox I’ve described in this weekly column. The first paradox was the Survival Paradox.
These are merely the first of many paradoxes or what are perhaps better described, in the words of Hugh Kenner, as “metaphysical paradoxes” (paradox can take different forms, some of which have nothing to do with the riddles of being).
The metaphysical paradoxes are crucially relevant.
Because they are proof that there is an area of existence we can’t access through reason. There’s something . . . else.
So, metaphysical paradox will be a recurring theme. It can’t be avoided. Because reality is a recurring reality.