Understanding selfishness

I think I’ve held a misunderstanding of what it means to be selfish. I’m trying to come to a better conclusion about why we would label one person as selfish and another person as normal or altruistic.

Selfishness is a bad thing. That’s what I’ve been told all my life. We should always strive to be a little more selfless in our everyday lives because that’s what good people do. They care about other people more than they do themselves. It’s an admirable trait that everyone should aim to have.

This definition, I fear, can be taken too literally. As I think I have been doing for the past couple of years. My mindset to how I should treat myself and others was heavily skewed against me. I thought that I should only wish well for other people because that is good. I should not always desire to have things just for myself if I could share them with other people like my siblings and friends.

“My things are our things.” That kind of mindset. (Unsurprisingly, that happened with food a lot. No one really wanted to share socks.)

Now I think I’m mistaken. Wishing good things to happen to yourself is not selfish. It’s not bad in anyway. In fact, it’s healthy. While we should attempt to stray away from being self defeatist, purposefully ignoring our wishes is unhelpful too. It doesn’t allow us to be positive in times that we want to or feel we need to. Having a desire for yourself is not bad. And we shouldn’t always feel guilty about wanting to act on it.

For example, I use a walking stick and use the train somewhat frequently. Now, sometimes there won’t be seats and I’ll have to stand. Usually I’m fine with that and don’t make a fuss about it. People are tired and want to sit down. We’re all in the same boat train. The problem, however, is that I used to think, when someone would offer me there seat, that taking it would be selfish. Sometimes I decline, other times I accept. But I shouldn’t feel guilty for accepting a good deed, should I? Nor should I feel guilty for not giving up a seat if I feel like I need it. Although, I still give up my seat for other people.

Some people might try to tell me that everyone is naturally selfish so I have absolutely no reason to worry about it. The way I understand it currently is: no matter what we do, we always try to do it for our own benefit. We’re all egoists at heart. The oft-cited example is giving to charity. While I may say that I just want to help other people, I really do it because it makes me feel good.

To me, that view is unfair. While it may be true that we enjoy the benefits of every action we do, in everyday life our intentions tend to be genuine and that is how we should measure selfishness. The last time you gave to charity or helped your sibling with homework, I doubt you asked the question ‘why will this help me?’

Thinking of yourself and wishing yourself well is not a negative thing. Being selfish requires negative intent and complete disregard of other people. There’s no need to feel guilty about enjoying your own slice of cake.

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