The Utility of Selfishness

On our anniversary, my husband and I went into H-E-B to buy ourselves flowers. As we walked back out into the parking lot, we saw a long line of vehicles stopped in the row in which we had parked. It wasn’t immediately obvious why, but eventually we realized that one man had decided he was going to sit right there until these other people finished loading their groceries into their car and moved it – so that he could have their parking spot. In the meantime, the vehicles stacking up behind him could just wait, I guess.

We had parked more than halfway down the lot. We walked out to our car, got in, and, thanks to a kinder person who let us out, joined the line of waiting people. We were there for some minutes.

My husband grew angry, in the way that he does grow angry when he sees people being unnecessarily monstrous. I grew sort of disdainfully baffled. This is the kind of thing that really does make me wonder what is going on inside someone else’s head. How do you have to view the world and your place in it in order to feel justified in making ten strangers wait for ten minutes just so you can park a little bit closer to the store in a not-that-full parking lot?

Eventually he got his parking space and the rest of us were allowed to move on with our lives. As we went home, I thought about this – about selfishness, about how we always care more about ourselves than we do about anyone else, and what if that’s more than just part of our brokenness? What if we were deliberately designed to be this way?

To be clear: when I say selfishness today, I am not talking about narcissism, which is basically believing that other people are not like you in almost the same way that a bug is not like you and therefore you are not evil for crushing it if it gets in your way. Nor am I referring to the childish desire for instant gratification, which is caring for your present self but not for your future self, and frankly that really isn’t caring much for yourself at all. 

When I say selfishness today, I am referring to the way humans almost always are more interested in ourselves than we are in anyone else. 

And frankly, why should we not be? We are the only one who has to (or gets to) experience our entire life – and only our own life – and all the time. 

This self-interestedness shows up very clearly when there is pain involved. Would you rather talk about my sore throat or yours? 

“But no,” you say, “I would much rather be in pain than have someone I love be in pain.”

And why is that? Could it be because it is more painful for you to watch someone you love suffer than it is to suffer yourself? 

One of the ways we recognize that we love others is when we don’t just walk away and dismiss their pain – when we are willing to take their pain and feel it, so it becomes our pain too. 

Because that’s the only thing that moves us to act, to try to help someone. Our own pain. It has to be, because we can’t feel anyone else’s pain. We can’t even actually know that it exists. They could be lying.

Take that to an extreme and make yourself a martyr – absolute selflessness, right? Everything for everyone else and nothing for yourself. But why?

Does it truly benefit the other person for you to allow them to be a tyrant in their dealings with you?

Or is it just that you think you’ll be more loved if you chop yourself into bits in service to the people around you? Or is it because you’re afraid of what will happen to you if you don’t?

You can’t get away from you. You live inside your head. 

But what if that’s not a bad thing? What if you caring more about yourself and your life than anyone else’s, or than anyone else does, is the best design possible for our world – because you and your life are the only things that you really have power over?

But it is important to note that I don’t believe acknowledging that we were designed to care more about ourselves than anyone else means we’re excused if we hurt other people. Just because I am more important to me than anyone else is, does not mean that I am, in fact, more important. It’s only in my own head that I matter more.

In fact, it’s the opposite. I care about myself more than anyone else, so I really can’t be offended if they care about themselves more than they care about me. And that makes people’s kindness and attention more valuable, not less. 

That’s why I am continually amazed and grateful that you are here, reading this.

And it’s a powerful tool, because once you accept that everyone is and always will be primarily interested in themselves, you can train yourself to occasionally move your focus away from yourself and onto someone else – and it will be one of the greatest gifts you can give to that person. Learn to do this well and often, and you will be welcome everywhere you go.

And for yon folk who want to tell me I’m being ungodly by not entirely condemning our innate selfishness, let’s go there. 


But this is my favorite part: 

There’s a freedom that comes when you realize no one cares about you as much as you do, and you can’t expect them to, and they never will. You stop waiting for someone else to fix your problems, or to plan your birthday party, or to follow up with you on that thing that you asked them about, or really to do anything that does not benefit them. It’s not that people don’t love you or want you to be happy. It’s not that they will never do selfless and generous things for you – and I hope that you will do selfless and generous things for them too. Your life will be better if you do. (See what I did there?) It’s just that at the end of the day, you are not as important to them as they are, just as they are not as important to you as you are. 

No one else will suffer the way I will suffer if I don’t figure out my finances – so no one else will bother fixing them – so if I don’t want to suffer, I better figure out my finances. 

No one else is feeling the pain that this broken tooth is causing me – so no one else is going to make sure it gets better – so if I want this pain to stop, I better find a dentist. 

No one else cares as much as I do if I’m miserable for the rest of my life. 

And that’s the beauty of it.

No one cares as much about your life as you do, and no one has more power to fix it than you do.

It’s perfect.

5 thoughts on “The Utility of Selfishness

  1. Isn’t it interesting how God’s plan, and the devil’s alternative, often appear so nearly the same, and yet on closer inspection, they’re so far apart? And we have the power of choice.

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    1. Hi Heidi, it’s good to hear from you again! I appreciate your comments. I am struggling to understand this one though in context of this post – can you tell me more about that?

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  2. I guess I was thinking many more thoughts than what I shared…
    I’ve been thinking about selfishness too, recently, what is it, really? and your post started my brain rolling along a slightly different track…
    I have a tendency to try to be too much, do too much, to the point where I’m chopping myself into bits to try to feed ALL people. (OK, that’s an exaggeration, but you understand what I mean?) When really I can’t. Only God can do that. And while yes, He uses people, He also asks us to Be Still enough to know Who He is. I need to work on that side of things, and no, that’s not selfishness. God doesn’t want me to be selfish (in a negative way) but I’m also of very little use if I’ve run myself ragged. I think the devil wants Christians to believe they’re being “selfish” if they don’t give to the point of breaking. Does that give you a better picture of what I meant? And thanks for sharing thought-provoking articles!

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    1. I just realized I never responded, I apologize!
      And yes, that does give me a better picture, thank you. I think this bit is important: “I think the devil wants Christians to believe they’re being “selfish” if they don’t give to the point of breaking.” -because while there are absolutely times to step out in faith and give more than we believe we’re capable of in that moment, if we are consistently running ourselves ragged I believe it’s important to stop and ask why we’re doing this (with me, it’s almost always because I’m trying to earn love so that’s brilliant). And I think being a good steward of what I’ve been given includes being a good steward of my time and energy.
      But it always comes back to why…am I not giving because I’m afraid I won’t have enough? Am I only giving because I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t? Or am I following Holy Spirit’s direction in this moment?

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