“Good morning class! Nice to see all your bright, shining faces. Now we have a lot to cover today, so I’d like you all to open your books, take out your pencils, and get ready to learn! Oh, Sarah, you don’t have a pencil? Just borrow one from Johnny. Johnny, don’t be selfish, give her the pencil. Alright, are we ready?”
This scene is probably familiar to you. School is a large part of our lives, and whether you aced every course or feared your final report grades, you certainly learned something from your educational experience. However, there is one lesson that none of your teachers covered in class—the value of selfishness. You may remember your classmates being scolded when they didn’t share a toy or were reluctant to hand over a piece of their cookie, but you weren’t told that not all forms of selfishness are actually a bad thing. The word selfish usually conjures up feelings of shame and guilt, but we as a society are wrong to give it such a negative connotation. So today, I’m going to ask you to close your traditional textbooks and open your mind a new and often over-looked lesson. We’ll review the history of how selfishness has been viewed; what role it plays in modern society, and how selfishness can have a positive impact on your own life, so by the end of our lesson, you might have a whole new view on what it means to be selfish.
To understand what selfishness truly signifies, it is necessary to study the history of how society has viewed it. We can take this lesson as far back as biblical times, when the common idea was that selfishness is an evil inherent to human nature. For instance, Timothy 3:2 states, “…Men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful…ungrateful, unholy.” However, ideas about the morals of selfishness began to be less universal at the turn of the 19th century as capitalism became more popular.
You have transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote the famous essay “Self-Reliance” and was known for his catch phrase of “Trust Thyself." Then you have Herbert Spencer, the social Darwinist who coined the famous expression “survival of the fittest. And then there was Ayn Rand, who founded the philosophy of objectivism, which focuses on individual identity. More importantly, she had a very different view on selfishness than the average person. Rand believed selfishness was not about taking from others but about self-esteem and pursuing individual happiness. In her non-fiction novel "The Virtue of Selfishness," she writes, “…the doctrine that concern with one’s own interests is evil means that man’s desire to live is evil—that man’s life, as such, is evil. No doctrine could be more evil than that.” But although views on selfishness have become more open to interpretation over the centuries, many today still seem to forget that selfishness is not as black and white as it seems.
The next part of today’s lesson will focus on the role selfishness plays in society today. Most of us were taught that selfishness is an evil part of humanity that we are better off without. But if selfishness really is just a part of being human, why do we try so hard to get rid of it? Instead of doing everything we can to eradicate it, we need to understand and appreciate why selfishness is necessary to every person. First, selfishness is actually an important part of being able to take care of those around you. It often seems that the best way to help others is to be selfless, but actually, there are circumstances when looking after oneself first will actually benefit others. Before takeoff on United States airlines, flight attendants instruct passengers on emergency procedure. When the oxygen masks drop down from the ceiling, passengers are told to secure their own masks before they try to assist others. The idea is that, in a panic, a person struggling for oxygen will be unable to help others get their masks tied properly. By putting yourself first in the situation, you not only save yourself, but others in the process.
Selfishness can also be linked to the reason behind our generous actions. In fact, the acts you usually perceive as selfless often come from a place of selfishness. Say you are a religious person and you believe in participating in charity. A very selfless practice, right? Perhaps not. Your faith has led you to do good works so that you can live a good life so that, at the end of t, you can stroll on through those Pearly Gates with pride. That’s right— you’re helping others to help yourself— you’re being selfish. But that’s okay, not only because it’s just a part of being human, but because your selfishness has ended up making the world a better place. According to the National Philanthropic Trust, the average household in America donates almost $3,000 annually to nonprofits, and Americans on a whole gave $358.38 billion to charity in 2014. So clearly our selfish desires to make ourselves better people are paying off in society.
On the other hand, it is important to remember that it is possible to be too selfless. When Elizabeth Gilbert’s most famous novel, "Eat, Pray, Love," became an international success, she was thrilled because the money she earned with her book would allow her to finally help her friends and family financially. She paid off credit card bills, mortgages, and even bought new homes for her loved ones. But Gilbert began to notice that her giving nature had begun to strain her relationships with the very people she was trying to help. In an article on DailyMail.com, she writes, “I lost my friends…because I had used the power of giving recklessly on them… erased years of obstacles overnight—but sometimes, in the process, I accidentally erased years of dignity.” She was so selfless that she forgot that sometimes, people need and want to be able to help themselves. In the end, Gilbert realized that sometimes good intentions and selfless acts do not pay off in the way they hope they will.
You may still be having doubts about this lesson that selfishness can be virtuous, so let’s take some notes on how selfishness can have a positive impact on your life. I’m guessing that everyone here has birthday, and I’m assuming that at some point in your life you’ve had a party on this birthday and a bunch of your friends came and there was a cake and there was even a fun song. And the one thing that all this was centered around? You. Birthdays are definitely pretty selfish. It’s a social obligation that people shower you with attention and gifts and messages on Facebook— but does that stop us from enjoying it? People have been celebrating their own births since Ancient Rome, so I think it’s safe to say that selfishness has led to many awesome toga parties.
Selfishness is also an integral stone on the path to success. When I was in sixth grade, I joined the track team at my school and found that I was actually pretty good at the 1600 meter run. But there was one girl from my school who beat me in every race that year. It was felt nice find something I was talented at, but second place was not enough for me. So the next year before the season started, I trained hard on my own, and I went above and beyond to improve during every practice leading up to the first meet. I wanted to win so badly, and the vision of me crossing the finish line before everyone else lit a fire inside me. In the end, all my sweat and tears were worth it— that girl never beat me again. In fact, no one beat in a race that year, and when I look back at the moment I stood on the first place podium at the championship meet, I realize that the thing that brought me there was my selfish desire to succeed. I worked hard so that I could accomplish my own goals. I learned very much that track season about dedication and work ethic, but the thing that’s stuck with me the most is the realization that being selfish would allow me to achieve my dreams. Selfishness has shaped every success story ever told— it could even lead to your own.
School is out. But it is crucial to remember that not every lesson we will need was given to us by our teachers. Perhaps the most important lessons in life should not be taken from what we learned in school, but from what we’ve known all along. We have looked over the history of selfishness and seen that it is a vital part of human interaction and the key to individual success and happiness. Remember Johnny, the boy who didn’t want to give his pencil to Sarah? He may have a had a valid reason to be selfish—perhaps it was his only pencil, and he wanted to hold on to this crucial classroom material to ensure his own success. Can we really condemn him for that? So never be ashamed to have self-esteem and self-respect and self-reliance, for only by caring for yourself first can you turn your attentions to the needs of others. From now on, when you use the world “selfish”, understand that is does not always represent an insult, but instead, an irreplaceable and valuable part of who you are. Thank you.