All selflessness is selflish

Derek Sivers, in “Parenting: Who is it really for?”, made the following observation:

“The reason I’m finally writing about this is because I realized that I’m doing all of these things for myself, as much as for him.

By cultivating his long attention span, I’m cultivating my own.

By entering his world, I’m letting go of my own, like meditation.

By broadening his inputs, I’m broadening my own, and keeping a wide variety in my life.

He’s away for two weeks right now, and I really miss these things! I thought I was being selfless, playing for hours, or entering his world. But actually these things benefit me as much as him, like most things we consider “selfless”.”

​All selflessness is selfishness. When you spend all afternoon labouring, creating a beautiful, gourmet meal for your partner, you’re not doing it for them. You’re doing it for you. When you spend time at the community centre, helping with the unglamourous chores, it’s not for the good of the community. It’s a way to massage your own ego. When you buy a cake from an independent coffee shop and pop your change in the tip pot, you’re being generous, but only to yourself and to the esteem with which you behold yourself.

Anthony De Mello, in The Way to Love, describes the characteristics of love using a lamp, a rose and a tree:

“Love so enjoys the loving that is is blissfully unaware of itself. The way the lamp is busy shining with no thought of whether it is benefiting others or not. The way a rose gives out its fragrance simply because there is nothing else it can do, whether there is someone to enjoy the fragrance or not. The way the tree offers its shade. The light, the fragrance and the shade are not produced at the approach of persons and turned off when there is no one there. These things, like love, exist independently of persons. Love simply is, it has no object.”

But we are neither lamp nor rose nor tree. We cannot give off a thing without being conscious of it. When we are generous, when we are kind, when we are forgiving, when we are loving, when we are hateful, when we are angry, we are all these things and conscious of them.

Imagine that embedded within all our minds is a vision of who we’d like to be and who we actually are. Every action we take, no matter how selfless it may seem, is merely an attempt to find alignment between the former and the latter. Every act, both the base and the noble, are consequences of our obsession with the mis-alignment between our ideal and our reality. In this sense, nothing we do is for anyone but ourselves.

Even virtuous acts like sacrifice are selfish. If a man or woman dies so that others may live he or she has done a generous, courageous, loving thing. But that thing has been done as much for the actor as it has for the recipient. In those final moments, in that window before death, the person can be satisfied on two accounts: the first is that he or she has done something that will benefit others, and the second is that he or she has done something that will benefit others, and so with the last act of their life, they have finally lived up to their own ideal.