By E.F Nicholson
If you have ever publicly lamented on the injustices of the world, the wars waged or the suffering endured by millions, there is often a standard response from many people, which is to say:
“That’s just the way humans are. Look at our history; from the dawn of civilisation we see violence, greed, war and injustice. Basically humans are selfish beings.” If not that, you’ll hear something along those lines.
The argument seems to be backed up by historians, evolutionary biologists, economists, etc., that humans are driven by self-interest, where the survival of the fittest shapes a world of winners and losers, alphas and betas, that beneath our cultural niceties we are compelled by biological drives to survive, dominate and look after ourselves, that even caring for our children isn’t about love, but rather a biological imperative to further one’s genes and to have offspring to further one’s needs. Culturally, capitalism has furthered this by the adulation of individualism, success and personal accumulation of wealth as being the pinnacle of human accomplishment. Our political, economic and societal structures reward those who are ruthless, controlling and ambitious. Basically, living a life as a kind of sociopathic narcissist is the key to getting what you want in life, and getting what you want in life, we have been told, is what to want in life.
Yet, what’s interesting is even though the “we are all selfish” mantra is something many people agree with, it’s a truth that often doesn’t match with the reality of their own personal lives. Even though we are told this is what is meant to drive us all, anyone who really lives their life based on that type of priority is an anomaly rather than the norm; let’s just say they are the 1%, not the 99%. There are very compelling arguments about humans being built as co-operative and compassionate at the core of who we are. The fact that we psycho-social beings need to look after others and be caring is of far more importance to our well-being being than it is to look after number one. You could argue the whole “selfish myth” is just in vogue to prop up today’s current model of preferred behaviour, which happens to be in the services of a tiny group of people who are trying to rationalise the fact that being an asshole isn’t something we choose, but rather it’s just how we have been built (nice try, guys). The fallacy of the “humans are innately selfish” myth is explored in great and compelling detail in the book “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution” by Peter Kropotkin. In it, Kropotkin challenges the belief that capitalism is a natural progression of Darwinism at work in the wild. He gives examples of compassion and innate goodness at work outside the bounds of a structured power-based society, showing cooperation among animals and instances of non-hierachical interactions from primitive tribes to mediaeval cities and modern labour unions.
What I wanted to share was just more from a personal view rather than an anthropological view. It just strikes me at times how crazy it is that we can just accept cultural memes that run against the reality of our personal experiences and internal value systems. Just like being told that “having things” somehow should make us happy doesn’t align with the actually reality of what makes us happy, so too is how “we are all selfish” doesn’t align we the reality of how most of us live our lives. Who do you know who openly believes they are inherently selfish, beyond its theoretical truth? Of course, we all can be selfish at times and do selfish things and act in selfish ways, yet more often these behaviours come about due to our ignorance and lack of awareness of, in fact, who we truly are as people. Fear and lack of awareness of our inter-connectedness with others often underpins those choices in life we make that we could consider selfish. When we have developed a healthy and whole sense of ourselves that comes from feeling loved, cared for and secure, we care for others and act more selfless in a very natural and effortless way.
The whole notion of being selfish works from a very limited understanding of self, namely I am this “me,” a mind encased and separated by a body of flesh from everything else out there, namely “you” or “other,” yet just on a purely physical level, our ability to draw lines under what’s “me” and what’s “other” just from the air I breathe and molecules that make me up is almost impossible. Who we are in reality is more an infinitely changing and complicated flux of relationships in exchange with our environments, be it biological, chemical or atomic. So just on the physical level alone, how can we be just selfish beings if we don’t even have a clear sense of what and where this self actually begins and ends?
Then, on a deeper metaphysical or psychological level, to end up being a selfish person is a marker that we have missed something or that something has gone wrong in our growth and development as a person. Narcissism is a healthy stage in a child’s development, but is eventually transcended in our growth toward healthy adulthood. Ending up in life as a greedy, violent and ultimately selfish person isn’t the natural evolution of our humanness, but quite the opposite. Study after study shows that the majority of violent behaviour comes from people who have been abused, victims of violence, or those who are somehow deeply wounded souls. Greed and the need to control others comes from an empty sense of self that falsely thinks it can fill that hole by manipulating situations in an attempt to ease that inner discomfort, just as it baffles people when they hear about a multi-billioniare whose only goal seems to be wanting to become multi-trillionaire. They are a prisoner to an internal belief system that can never feel enough. They are not the pinnacle of human evolution; rather they are just wounded souls employing ineffective methods of resolving their pain. When our needs are met by our primary care givers, when we feel loved and cherished, valued and secure, what flows naturally is the real nature of who we are: loving, kind and empathic humans, with an acute awareness of our connection and relationship to others. As Arthur Maslow puts it, “Man has a higher nature and that this is part of its essence— or more simply, that human beings can be wonderful out of their own human and biological nature.”
Having this kind of human nature, we find meaning in being of service. We become humans who find happiness in supporting others to be happy, humans who grieve loss, but do so because they allowed themselves to love and to be loved. Humans who can be vulnerable in knowing that if they fall something will always catch them. Humans who have abiding trust in life and unbreakable goodness that resides within them all. Humans who feel at home with themselves and have an internal ease arising from a profound sense of belonging.
Humans aren’t inherently selfish; we are innately and inescapably loving. No matter how many times we are told that we are selfish and we are greedy, we are violent and we are savage, that truth of a real loving nature never disappears. It can’t; it’s hard-wired into our DNA, it’s woven into the fabric of reality itself. It’s unavoidable and immensely patient, and it seems no matter how much bigger a tunnel we build leading away from it, or no matter how much larger a wall we construct in an attempt to avoid it, the reality of this remains. It may fade from awareness, it may be eclipsed temporarily by beliefs and diversion, but it can never and will never go away. Thomas Aquinas argued in the thirteenth century that at the deepest core of human nature there lies a “natural inclination to virtue” that can be obstructed by depravity, but never wholly extinguished.
To bring that power of our real nature into a more visible and active force in our lives only requires we bring our awareness to it. We need only to open our hearts to the light that is always there. It’s already shining, we just need to re-feel its warmth and radiance. We need to name it and own it as who we are. The next revolution to really change our world won’t be political or economic. It won’t be further advancements of mind or technology; rather, it will be a reawakening to this simple truth about our human nature. In a society so crazy and confusing, a good indicator of what is true is to look right at the exact opposite of what we are told is true. We are told over and over we are selfish, which is a belief that diverts us from most the powerful and simple truth there is: that we are not.