As human beings, we are conditioned to be selfish. To demonstrate express interest in oneself is part of our survival instinct. Spending our attention focused on ourselves allows us to become aware of our own needs. When we feel sick, hungry, sleepy—we notice these needs and care for ourselves accordingly. And it keeps us alive.
I have known people whose attention was so focused outside of themselves, it was to their detriment. A friend, who was engrossed in video games, forgot to eat because he didn’t notice he was hungry. A coworker, who focused exclusively on her job, came into work even when she was too sick to really be leaving her bed. Fortunately for both of them, this obsessive focus on the external is usually temporary..and so, after some hours, their attention will shift back to themselves, they will address their needs, and continue living.
A note from this last example: care for one’s work can also be an expression of selfishness. While the first step considers our own immediate needs, the second concerns our needs of the future. The desire to maintain our existence tomorrow with money for food and shelter motivates our interest in our work. Even such things as keeping the house orderly—removing dust to maintain air quality for our health, washing dishes for the sanitation of our food, putting items away so we don’t trip over them and injure ourselves—can be construed within the context of selfishness. Leisure also—the periodical removal of our attention from ourselves to something absolutely trivial provides a needed respite for our minds to allow us to better concentrate in the future on the things which concern us.
Yet beyond our physical and mental needs, we as humans also have an emotional need for community. We can feel it any time we are left alone for an extended period..the raw ache that something is missing from our lives, even when all other needs are met. Some speculate that communities evolved because it made sense..having more people to fight off the wolves, and differentiation of work to reduce the overall tasks required of one person, allowed for humans to begin to thrive rather than just survive. They also argue that the emotional need for community has evolved from that. I’m not here to dispute that argument, but I do think that emotions are incredibly complex biochemically (neuro-biochemically, scientists still don’t understand them), and to rationalize their evolution may be too large an extrapolation.
Photo credit: copyright, Gareth Williams.
Disclaimer: This image is licensed under Creative Commons.
Curiously, it is this very last (some may say irrational) need which drives us away from our selfishness. It forces us to focus on another: to listen to them, to see their needs and through empathy to feel them. This focus allows us to care for their needs, and thereby to love them.
As human beings we are selfish, and justly so. But we are also made to love, and this love transcends our selfishness, indeed transcends our very selves, and transforms us from this self-centered being to a model of living that is radically different. When we focus on each other, and we learn to love all people, it is in this moment that we have attained the highest heights of perfection.
God Himself alone is perfect. And God alone is Love. As beings made in His image and likeness, we are called to mirror His being, and when we love perfectly, we are perfectly mirrors of God, and perfectly human. Sin, which is anything that prevents us from loving perfectly, is the self-same thing which stands between us and God—a darkness in the mirror.
Those motivators in our lives which cause us to focus on the other arise from our state in life—our vocation, our calling. In marriage, a man and woman are called to radically focus on the other, and on their children. In religious and single life, men and women are called to radically focus on their community. Parents who get up in the middle of the night to care for a crying child, while only themselves getting four hours of sleep. Teachers who stay late at school to help their struggling students, while forgoing their own leisure. It is through vocation that we grow in our focus on others, and thereby our care for others, and thereby our love for others, which causes us to grow in perfection. While this focus is not part of our selfishness arising from our survival instinct, some may call it selfishness of a different kind, focused on the survival of our species.
I call it holiness.
P.S.—if you enjoyed this thought exercise, I highly recommend the book “Love and Responsibility” by Karol Wojtyla (Pope Saint JPII).