Yesterday I was writing about selfishness and selflessness and the important distinction between for and about. I was trying to articulate my point, but a satisfactory explanation remained elusive. I think, though, that using the example of someone I know, I can put it this way: this person’s love for people, for example, is about her love for them. It is about her. It is self-oriented, self-involved. For her, the focus of her ostensible benevolence toward others is her (benevolence toward them). The point is that she does it, and that it is about her own self-validation and self-righteousness; and if she feels she has sacrificed in any way for it then that makes her that much more righteous and virtuous. It is such a “Western”, self-involved, and dare I say it, Judeo-Christian ethos. For, what is cloaked in a confused and false modesty is an over-inflated sense of self-importance (the hallmark of most “religious” people, incidentally). The point is that in the end, it is essentially, and revealingly, about her.
Anyone who exhibits this kind of narcissism, and there are many of them, reveal just how insecure, immature, weak, and unenlightened they really are. The thought that has run through my mind many times over the years when listening to this person bitch, complain, and pronounce in judgment has been, “Jeez, it’s not all about you.” Which, itself, is a beautiful irony for someone who has always considered everyone else in her life to be selfish, cruel, and uncaring for not considering her as much as she has seen fit. These are some of the subtle and complex trappings of the ego-self.
It makes sense in this person’s case, for she has said, ad nauseam, that she was emotionally neglected by her parents. Her reaction was to bolster herself up, to say, “I am important,” and therefore ended up living that way, that “I” am important. But the subtle thing about it is that this was internalized and expressed subconsciously, for on the outside (and this is the neurosis of the victim mentality) she acted the martyr (always subconsciously making you very aware of her sacrificing for you).
But that is victim mentality. It is a fairly common behavior by those who have been abused in some way, or even simply feel that they’ve been abused. A man, say, who was sexually abused as a child will hate his abuser, but will also love him/her in a twisted kind of way, and will often turn around and sexually abuse others. It is a “complex”. The person I’ve been talking about exhibits the same kind of behavior—hating her parents for her feelings of neglect, and so she internalizes the reaction against it (i.e., “I am important”), while on the outside still exhibiting martyr-type behavior that says she is not important. But it is the internal self-obsession that’s really running the show.
This is, in many ways, the very definition of selfishness, because it is all about the self—the denial of the self, the anger for the lack of satisfaction of the self, the frustrated desires of the self, etc. It is a sad thing for people to be this way, but it is important to see the truth of it, and to not condone such things just because it is a sad thing.
People who have this kind of martyr-victim complex exhibit a fucked up kind of selfishness, but it is selfishness nonetheless. Such people’s spiritual/emotional growth is impeded by this self-absorbed attitude, for they often over-emphasize their love of others and end up just a sad martyr. But their “love” of others is about the hole that their own feelings of neglect left in them. It is a subconscious longing to fill that hole so they can feel loved and thus worthwhile. They are simply precluded from (expressing) real love because they are so entrenched in “self issues”.
And so, never really understanding this, they self-righteously dish out ostensibly selfless acts, and feel that because they have done what is (outwardly) “Right” as opposed to what was done to them which was “Wrong,” they deserve, nay, demand, respect and love for it. It slides them, unknowingly, into a duty-based morality, with little genuine concern for the very real consequences of their actions. And so they get stuck in a cycle of self-importance and outwardly selfless acts.
The point here is that it is about them, their virtuous selflessness, about the fact that they are virtuous because of their “selfless” acts, then they are not selfless, but actually utterly self-full; they are literally self-obsessed, because they cannot get past themselves as the do-er of (and thus worthy—though neglected and never really appreciated—recipient of praise for doing) what is Right.
Thus, the question to be asked about a deed to determine whether it is selfish or selfless is not whom it is for, but whom it is about.
From my personal notes, 8/26/00