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Friday, July 18, 2014

Words That Can Haunt Me, Part 10: Selfishness

There's no question the world would be a better place if we were kinder to one another. And George Saunders' May 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University - first a viral sensation and now a book ("Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts On Kindness") - proves that people are hungry to hear it. I'm grateful to Saunders for getting out the word. Buy this little gem for others and help spread his message.

"If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?": Rabbi Hillel

"There's a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness":  George Saunders

Because kindness is Saunders' cure for the sickness of selfishness, my long and complicated relationship with that word has now come into sharp focus. As a young adult, I began questioning conventional wisdom about the evils of selfishness. Then I discovered the wisdom of Rabbi Hillel. For over thirty years his words have been a beacon to me. Now I wonder: Along the way, did I lose sight of some of the second part of the Rabbi's formulation and let my selfishness interfere with kindness? When you consider the Rabbi's words, how do you keep your balance?


  1. Chipping away in order (mostly) at these posts. You have my brain thinking overtime this summer...and it is all good! Thank you for this reflection on selfishness vs. kindness. If ever there was a worthy opponent to selfishness, kindness is it. The question I was left wondering is, "Since when did living a life wrought with kindness become merely a choice?" I like to believe that kindness is the default of humans, and the choice toward selfishness is borne of mistrust.

    Now wait, because I know you are thinking how naive that statement is! But really, when you consider children still in the trusting stage of development, before they learn the desire to defend themselves and their belongings, their most inborn trait is kindness. It is not until worldly possessions and material belongings enter their radar as something that can be taken away, that they learn to defend with selfishness.

    While enjoying life in my world of naivite, I'd like to consider that adults too, can default to kindness. We are not wired to be selfish. We are wired to think of others and act on their behalf. Then our culture tells us to look out for ourselves, make sure we are not taken advantage of, and 'it's all about me'. For proof of this, spend time with any adult with special needs that prohibit him or her from "knowing" about possessiveness and defense. Their default is often love and kindness. They have not the capacity for the selfishness that plagues the mainstream population because they maintain a level of trust, and where there is trust, there is kindness.

    Selfishness need not exist. Once we learn to look upon others and ourselves with love, trust and kindness, not worrying about what outsiders will think or how recipients of our kindness will treat us in return, we can exchange love for love, and kindness for kindness.

    Sometimes the most we can do is make sure we are living with kindness as our default, teaching others by our example.


    1. d; You give so much penetrating thought to my musings - sometimes your perspective alters mine as I read your incisive comments. Saunders little book really got me going on my lifelong struggle with this word. I went from being a guilt-racked Catholic who was taught it was a "sin" to be selfish to a free-spirited hedonist in my young adult life and then spent the last 40+ years trying to figure out my relationship to this laden word; Rabbi Hillel soothed me until Saunders came along. I'd love to go back to my childhood so I could fully embrace the "unselfish" kindness you accurately observe in children. Probably a good subject for a future post - thanks for the inspiration.