global issues

Selfishness: The Source of the World’s Problems

It may be amazing, but it’s quite true that millions of problems can come about from one simple problem. But rather than give an abstract explanation as is my usual custom, let’s go into a ton of examples. (Get ready for a really, really long article.)

Millions of people are starving in Indonesia despite the fact that America has sent them tons of food. The commoners aren’t allowed to have the food because the military won’t let them. Why? A dictator wants to continue to live rich and satisfy his own material desires, but for that, he needs money and people to give him what he wants, otherwise, he’ll have to work for it. He doesn’t want to work for it. So to get what he wants, he pays an army to suppress a nation of people and take their wealth and goods. From the excess of their booty, he pays the army. Then foreigners offer aid, but to keep the army on his side and prevent the people from growing stronger, he keeps the food away from the people. He is selfish, that’s why.

There is an accident on the highway somewhere. As the story goes – as it has many, many times before – someone cut someone else off in traffic. Why? The driver who caused the accident had become impatient and was hoping to save a few seconds of travel time. But to do so, he needed to move ahead of someone else who was racing ahead, equally interested in saving a few seconds of time. Their competition resulted in a collision. The result cost both of them hundreds of dollars if not their lives. They were selfish.

Those are obvious examples. Let’s look at some more subtle, contrived examples.

A girl finds herself being raped. Why? Over the years, she had become accustomed to the idea that hanging around the “cool” people wearing skimpy clothes was an “expression” of herself. In reality, it was simply an open invitation to allow others to look at her with lusting eyes. She blamed the boys for not respecting her when she had done nothing to invoke their obligation to do so. She was selfish, that’s why.

A guy finds himself in a state of anger and depression after his girl dumped him. Why? For years, he decided to treat her as “his own” rather than respecting her. He looked at porn every night, blaming his girl for not willing to expose herself to him whenever he wanted instead of respecting her to such an extent that he would patiently and happily look forward to the times when she did. He treated her as a toy. He lost her. He was selfish, that’s why.

A businessman is abandoned by all of his business partners. Why? Instead of trying to come to an understanding when they had disagreements, he always considered his actions correct and believed he never needed to explain himself. When the others acted in a way that they perceived he had acted, he was infuriated, but when they pointed out his faults, he made it seem like his decisions were obviously the best. In the end, no one wanted to work with him. He was selfish, that’s why.

As you might expect, there are flipsides to all of these sorts of stories. (I’ll let you imagine the flipsides.) As the saying goes, “It takes two to tango”. And in each of those cases, there is selfishness that drives apart the relationships.

For every force, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This also happens to apply in matters of relationships with humans with the exceptions caused by the fact that humans are not forced to follow the rules. But in general, if you are kind, people will be kind to you. If you are selfish, people will be selfish to you.

The fact is, whatever you do, you set a precedent. What does that mean? That means many other people will likely act the same as you in other situations.

Consider for example, the country boy who comes into town and gets drunk every night. Even if he tells people, “Don’t drink”, the mere fact that he does it breaks the ice and allows other slightly less bold to also perform the same activity. After all, they wouldn’t be the first.

I recall hearing about the change of heart a hippy who had promoted “free love” and “free sex” until asked to wear a shirt saying that on every birthday of his future daughter.

When the shoe is on the other foot, suddenly, we’re not so eager to be the recipient of selfishness.

The fact is, selfishness causes us to pass on the responsibility to other people. “Other people” will just have to deal with me and my crap. “Other people” will feed the homeless. “Other people” will take care of the sick. “Other people” will fix the world’s problems. I have news for you: Superman was only a comic, and if it weren’t for everyone being a selfish jerk, he wouldn’t have even had a job.

You may start to wonder about how selfishness is the root of problems in more complex scenarios, especially your own. In order to understand the more complex problems, however, you have to be more honest with yourself and in what you are willing to admit. Most people are dismissive of certain possibilities which lead to the real answers in many cases, which should explain why problems persist in the first place. After all, if the solution for every problem were obvious, you’d think more people would try it, right?

To be more honest, however, you have to be more humble. Humbleness is the antithesis of pride. Pride leads to arrogance, and arrogance leads to ignorance. Basically, when you think you know the answer (or at least the key parts), you stop learning about those things you think you already know. That should be a “duh”, but if the persistence of arrogance suggests many people still have not learned that important lesson.

Let’s consider a working man who comes home and watches TV every evening. It’s his “down time”. He needs it, he says. Does he? Cave men didn’t have TVs. His great, great grandfather didn’t have a TV. People made it through life without TV, so the TV itself is not a prime necessity. In any case, maybe his wife gets mad at him for not fixing the faucet. She wants him to do all the work. The faucet is an impending need; it has to be done. But neither he nor his wife have made any effort on their part to help the other person fix it. Maybe his wife could have asked what parts he needed to fix it so she could pick them up while he was at work instead of getting her usual perm. But she thinks its entirely his job. Maybe he should have allocated his time better so that he could have fixed the faucet in the morning and still had time for TV after he got home from work. Obviously, if the two of them sought to serve each other rather than expecting a game of give-and-take, they would have likely had the faucet fixed by now.

Let’s consider a more global example. It seems just about every large nation on earth has a department of spies, all of whom are likely at some point in their careers to be shot at and/or killed. The usual excuse is the “self defense” of the nation, but I doubt that’s even remotely true for the vast majority of these cases. In some cases, it’s some politician or government executive giving “payback” for what another politician or foreign dignitary did or said. In other cases, it’s a matter of stealing resources (many times in the form of information). The information is not always “for the defense of the country”. There are a number of reasons nations might want information from each other. Perhaps they want leverage in an economic negotiation to enrich their coffers. Quite selfish. Perhaps they want to enhance their arsenals so they can attack rather than investing in diplomacy. Or at the very least, they want to know how to stay in power so they can keep calling the shots and get other things they want.

These maybe slightly more obvious examples, but let’s consider even more subtle examples.

Touchier Topics

A number of people argue today over the issue of abortion. On the one hand, people say it’s necessary to prevent unwanted pregnancies due to rape. On the other hand, people say it’s murder. I recall reading statistics that showed only around 2% of abortions are actually after a rape. Either rape results in a very small number of pregnancies or the women who are raped prefer to take their babies to term anyways. In either case, it’s hardly a reason to support abortion. Now the mantra is “pro-choice”. Whose choice? What’s interesting is that the largest chunk of the pie on those stats – weighing in at 33% – was coercion. (I vaguely recall the second largest was that the mother had done it before and was accustomed to it.) Why coercion? What is coercion? Coercion is when someone else persuades you to do it. Family, friends, boyfriend, or the sexual abuser can all be causes. In all cases, the people doing the coercion are obviously not the one having the baby. They are only concerned with its care. While some may claim to have “best intentions” by considering how difficult it is to raise a child, the truth is, the raising of that child will only be difficult if no one other than the mother ends up doing it. In other words, the people doing the coercing are too selfish to help. If they were willing to help, they would actually be supportive, and then the mother would give birth.

Another example is medicare. Medicare sounds like a good thing in theory, and in practice, some of it is needed because of selfishness. After all, a number of people simply aren’t willing to give of their bounty to help the poor become healthy. On the other hand, there are also many people promoting medicare who, ironically, are also not interested in helping people. They are more concerned with passing off the responsibility to someone else and then making everyone else pay for it. They think that as long as they write a check to the tax bureau, they are doing their civic responsibility, and they may even complain about that! In any case, they are not concerned with the sick or they might actually dedicate time to taking care of the sick in their own community. We all know people who are sick at some point.

Let’s consider industrial waste. People in first world countries may not be well aware of the fact that most of their garbage is, in fact, shipped to poorer places (such as poorer countries) and dumped, where poor people cough and choke as they burn the rubbish to gain a few minerals to sell at the market and begin the process all over again. And when there is no place to take it, that garbage is dumped into the beautiful blue sea that people dream about as being occupied by whales, dolphins, and all sorts of wonderful creatures. People don’t usually think about these things when they throw their plastic straw into a garbage can. They think as long as they toss it into the recycling bin, the cycle of renewable resources magically begins. It doesn’t. It goes to some factory where it has to be sifted from other crap, and then it is melted down using heat from charcoal and oil and “natural gas”, which all spit out pollutants when the fuel isn’t fully combusted. Using FEWER straws would be a better solution. But good heavens, why would I want to limit my selfish way of life? Can’t I have my routine coffee in the morning and enjoy the paltry 16% of the electricity I’m wasting as I listen to my music device while the cable TV is on? My consumption is already hurting people, but it’s easier to talk about the people of the future whose problems are unknown yet we think we’re solving. Perhaps it’s time to lower our standard of living.

A number of companies offer “green” solutions to make their customers feel good, but these aren’t really solutions. For example, many stores offer paper cups because these are “greener” than styrofoam and can be disposed of readily. Other stores offer styrofoam because it uses “less energy” than the production of paper cups and therefore it’s “greener”. But none of them offer reusable cups (much less offer the customer use their own) because this would cut into their precious profit margin. Companies aren’t interested in saving the world. They’re interested in your money.

Ownership

Before digressing into politics, let’s take an even deeper look. All around us, people “own” things. What does ownership mean? It means you have the right to control something, correct? As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the word “right” doesn’t even mean anything. In its true form, ownership boils down to people thinking they get to determine what happens with something. Why do they get to make that determination? No reason. They just assume people are going to do it. Obviously, thieves recognize there’s nothing in the universe that binds something to a person, so though I don’t agree with their actions, I would say that what they do makes a valid point. Ownership is not a global concept. There are places on earth where people didn’t recognize it. Even in America, most of the original natives didn’t view land as something that could be owned. Dirt was dirt, not “property”.

The idea of ownership is selfish for every human being. Only God can actually say He “owns” everything, and yes, everything IS intrinsically tied to Him, so ownership does have meaning in regards to Him. For humans, however, it simply boils down to situations where one person hogs the resources (food, shelter, etc), so another person declares something else belongs to them.

Basic example: Imagine two boys exploring a forest. One finds a cave and calls it his own (even though the government may not consider it his property) and doesn’t share it with the other boy, so the other boy goes and finds another cave and calls it his own. It could be a cave or a stick or a some cool-looking rock, but the situation is the same: one boy is selfish because he cares only about pleasing himself, and thus he doesn’t share with the other boy, resulting in a system if ownership.

Sickness

What about sickness? Is sickness selfish? In many cases, no, but sometimes selfishness can lead to the sickness of others.

Royalty and dictators have the selfish desire of wanting to keep power in the family. They have tried various ways of doing this, Czar Nicholas tried intermarriage, resulting in his youngest son (Alexei) inheriting a genetic disease. For Henry the VIII, it was divorcing or beheading his latest concubine until finally he had a son who ended up being sickly and dying anyways.

In a more modern setting, sickness spreads a great deal through physical interactions that we don’t often think about. For example, snatching food off of someone else’s plate could lead to the transfer of diseases in their saliva to your mouth, making you sick. When you go to the grocery store, you may grab onto the handlebar of the cart to push it, not knowing that 15 minutes early, some inconsiderate child had picked his nose and then wiped his snotty fingers on that same spot on the handlebar where your fingers reside.

Considering the Modern Setting More…

I recall walking into my grocery store and seeing pets. At first glance, many people might not think much of it, but there are a number of problems. First, there are people with allergies, and allergies are common enough for people to consider. Second, the fur from animals can float in the air and get all over the food. Nevermind the fact that some animals jump up and sniff things or lick them as they walk by. But the people brining their pets inside are selfish. They only care about having their comfort animals alongside them, not how their animals affect the health of other people.

The selfishness even extends out into the parking lot. Some people driving cars wait for pedestrians to pass in front, but others don’t because their selfishness results in impatience. “Why should I wait for people? They are preventing ME from getting what I want!” They are not concerned with the welfare of the person in front of them. As a result, people get hit even in parking lots. And then there are those people who step out in front of vehicles without waiting to stop because they, the pedestrians, are impatient.

Little sources of aggravation are all around us, and all of these stem from selfish desires. If you open an account at a bank or some service provider (perhaps for internet), you might note at all of the little fees for performing various transactions. On the one hand, you might think you’re paying for the service, but the service provider is likely already making enough money off of you. The owners of the company simply want more.

The little sources of aggravation add up, which make selfish people (of all degrees of selfishness) all the more grouchy and impatient. Consequently, living in a big city is bad for selfish people. There are simply too many opportunities to worsen one’s character. That’s why country folk tend to be some of the most relaxed, patient people you’ll ever meet. They simply haven’t been pushed and prodded enough to be irritated and competitive.

Competition

Competition brings out the selfishness in people. If you watch sports games, you might note that the adrenaline isn’t what makes athletes lose their head. One team might keep their cool while the other team erupts in emotions. Why? At the heart of the emotional team may be a stronger desire to win, but in their mind, the other team is the enemy rather than a fun puzzle to solve. They view victory as an elevation of their status over the other team rather than as an earned accomplishment applying only to that week.

Competition itself may not be selfish in its bare essential form – we want to succeed, after all, and that’s not a bad thing. However, in the vast majority of settings, the competition is us pitted against each other, which certainly makes efforts at winning potentially selfish in nature.

Deep-set Consequences

The avarice (selfishness) of the rich resulted in both legislation and myopic societies in various countries that trapped millions of people into debts they cannot fully escape from, resulting in weakened economies that are gradually collapsing until everyone is poor and cannot take care of themselves. The message was: Live the first-world dream – chase after dreams, and to do so, you must walk through the same system everyone else has that used to work. Now, with prices skyrocketing, the returns are no longer matching the investments, but no one who can do something about it is willing to. Why not? I think we’ve already answered that question: selfishness.

Related to that, millions of people suffer from anxiety today. In fact, for some nations, it’s the #1 mental health problem. There are a number of causes, but is selfishness the root?

There are a number of factors, but curiously enough, they all start to boil down to the same thing, which might surprise you.

For example, people grow up being taught of a lifestyle that their parents had – a life of plenty, and they have this selfish desire to have a life like that of their own. How is this selfish? It may not seem selfish on the surface, especially when everyone else wants it. But the reality is that the fulfillment of these dreams is all about satisfying you. Is that so wrong? Consider the alternative. If you take care of other people instead of spending money to build a big house (as people do when they have a well-paying job), you won’t have a big fat house to worry about losing when you can’t pay your mortgage. Instead, you’ll have friends who might welcome you under their roof when you have none. You won’t need to worry about having a place to go. If you spend time with lower class people instead of trying to keep up appearances (the prideful (selfish) desire of having a certain social status), you won’t feel the anxiety of asking for food or help.

In short, part of the issue is being trained to seek a particular lifestyle and part of it is actually wanting that lifestyle.

The anxiety can spread to education, where people are in competition (hint, hint) to be the best, and consequently, some students cheat – which hurts the honest students – and some students become anxious that they will be cheated on or simply aren’t smart enough to pass. In any case, their parents may be concerned they won’t be ready for the real world, and this anxiety passes on to the children.

Is it selfish for the parent to want their child to succeed? There’s nothing wrong with wanting your child to succeed as long as you don’t put their success above everyone else’s. Unfortunately, schools are grounds of competition, as evidenced by the grading system.

The anxiety for parents is justifiable because they understand the bar to be hired. Companies are full of selfish people. They offer a measly stack of benefits in return for hard work they can use to make far more than they actually spent. Perhaps it would not be so selfish if they were more readily willing to hire – instead of seeking the best of the best – and if they were not so eager to fire when they didn’t feel like taking a penny from their own pocket. Were they not so selfish, loyalty in business would be significantly higher. But as it as, no one feels like defending someone’s back when they don’t believe the favor will be returned.

In poorer places, selfishness of those in power has left people impoverished and willing to do anything to make money. This has led to selfish men taking advantage of the misfortune of others. They may charge exorbitantly more for a service – knowing the other has no choice – so that they can make others indebted to them and take from them even more for their own gain. Many families have ended up selling their children into slavery to pay for food. The boys are forced to work in fields in the sun or unhealthy conditions just to make goods for people who care only about themselves and not the laborer. The girls are sent to brothels where they are raped by men who only care about gratifying their own cravings rather than about the dignity of the girls they have harmed.

In the End

Speaking of gratification, we return again to the country boy who gets drunk. He may likely end up in an accident, but at the very least, he perpetuates the lifespan of an establishment that offers the wrong way for people to solve their troubles. His routine, even if it doesn’t hurt him directly, hurts everyone else.

I could go on with literally thousands of examples and not even scratch the surface, but I think you get the idea. The question I invite you to ask is, “In what ways am I selfish?” What decisions are you making that seek your own good regardless of the outcome of others? It’s very easy for us to think our desires our pure when they coincide with supposed benefits to other people, but in reality, we might be acting very manipulative.

Any time we pursue selfishness, we do ultimately hurt the people around us. It’s not as if I live in my own little world and I get to do anything I want while others put up with me. You notice when other people mistreat you. Are you going to step into their shoes and act like them? Don’t be vengeful. Make a difference. Set a precedence of compassion, courtesy, and care for someone else, and you’ll help solve the problems around you. Don’t leave it up to other people. Don’t push responsibility onto them. You can change the world. Go and do it.

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