“Selfishness only causes trouble…” – Proverbs 28:25
Googling “self“ turned up all sorts of categories: self-directed, self-reliance, self-centered, self-serving, and self-important, to name a few. There’s even a “Self Magazine.” It turns out we’re a deeply “self”-conscious society. I’m shocked! Aren’t you? Not!
You may recall Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s still a very popular framework in sociology research, management training and secondary and higher psychology instruction. What’s the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy, i.e., mankind’s greatest ambition? Would you believe self-actualization? You bet.
Baby Boomers have long been libeled, er, labeled, the “me” generation. But this “It’s all about me” stuff didn’t start with us. In 1940, for example, C.S. Lewis wrote in ”The Problem of Pain,” “At this very moment you and I are either committing [selfishness], or about to commit it, or repenting it.”
Unfortunately, this problem may actually be getting worse. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Peter Kann writes concerning NBC anchor Brian Williams’ undoing, “In part Mr. Williams is symptomatic of larger social trends where traditional virtues like modesty and privacy have given way to the spotlight of self-promotion, here even lives too pedestrian for the paparazzi become an endless series of selfies.”
In light of our natural preoccupation with self it’s a bummer that selfishness equates with trouble, as the Brian Williams’ story and Proverbs 28:25 remind us. Other examples of this “trouble” include of course how hard self-centeredness is on marriages. After interviewing hundreds of folks searching for self-fulfillment, psychology professor Daniel Yankelovich concluded, “Among married people that I interviewed, those most devoted to their own self-fulfillment were those having the most trouble in their marriage.” No kidding!
And then there’s frustration and despair resulting from me-ism. Witness Sherman McCoy, hero of Tom Wolfe’s novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Believing himself to be the master of his own universe, McCoy’s life unravels when a freak car accident reveals that he doesn’t have control of everything after all. Imagine that!
Thus far, this has not been too encouraging. It gets better. There’s hope. While Proverbs warns of the consequences of selfishness, Scripture elsewhere offers ways to counter man’s albatross. For instance, building strong relationships. The Bible confirms in 1 Corinthians that we’re social creatures: “In God’s plan men and women need each other.” We share an essential need to be interested in other people, and building into a relationship tends to take the spotlight off of “me.”
Another self-centeredness antidote is giving ourselves away through service. Ephesians explains that “God planned that we should spend our lives helping others.” Coaching little league, mentoring a colleague, making hospital visits, being a servant leader in the marketplace – whenever we give ourselves with no expectation of a payback, it offsets self-centeredness.
A third and maybe the most powerful counter to selfishness is what the Bible calls “self-denial.” Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel, “If you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, take up your cross every day, and follow me.” This is where we get involved in stuff – the messy, tragic lives of others, for example – that no one else wants to do. Jesus exemplified this by washing a dozen fisherman’s filthy feet and pouring out his life sacrificially for you and me.
“Man is born to trouble as sure as sparks fly upward” (Job). The culprit? Selfishness, mankind’s fundamental defect. It first reared its ugly head in Eden (“We can be like God”), resulting in the curse; it continues creating havoc today in your life and mine. Part of our DNA, we can’t root it out entirely, but with God helping us to focus on building relationships, serving and sacrificing, we can mitigate its troublesome effects. Or putting a more positive twist on it, to give all, instead of scheming to get all, according to Jesus, is to know what it means to “really” live.
Dr. Jim Furr