When I was in my 8th grade history class, I distinctly remember my teacher asking her students to stand on the right side of the room if they believed humans were born selfish or on the left side of the room if they believed selfishness was learned. I did not hesitate for a moment before stepping to the right along with only three other students in my class who believed selfishness is innate. I understand that this very esoteric question of whether or not human beings are naturally selfish is debated, and that not everyone shares my opinion, and that some of you optimists might have the rare belief that people are good. But, here is the logic behind this seemingly cynical view of the world that I have adopted.
Children are not taught to steal each others toys, they are taught not to. Children are not taught to throw a tantrum when something doesn’t go their way, they are taught not to. Children are not taught to push each other on the playground, they are taught not to. All of these examples show that selfishness is evidently not learned, but is a perspective that we are born with. Biologically, this makes sense. If our minds and bodies were designed to best promote our survival, being concerned with oneself first and foremost would be the most beneficial for this. And, as much as we try and escape this biological curse of only being able to see through our own eyes, we can not, and must accept this inevitable selfishness.
I came to this realization after reading David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech called “This is Water.” This piece that I read for English was one of the most honest things I have ever read, and to be honest, it fucked me up. Wallace goes through the motions of daily life, explaining everyday scenarios in which we get so trapped in our own perspective, in our own selfishness, that we get annoyed with people for simply taking too long at line in the grocery store or switching lanes directly in front of us after a long day. These scenarios that everyone can relate to show that we are unconsciously frustrated with other people when they are not benefiting us. In reality, some of the people standing in line in the grocery store had much worse days that we did, but we continue viewing them as a nuisance instead of using compassion or even just acknowledging that their world does not also revolve around us. This shows that selfishness is what Wallace calls our “default setting.” He says that we can escape from this selfishness, but because it is so normal to us, we have to be aware of it in order to change our mindset.
As I said at the beginning, I have always believed that people are selfish, but it wasn’t something that I actively thought about until reading this. “This is Water” caused to me reflect on my own selfishness, and I wasn’t proud of my many of my decisions were made with only number 1 in mind. So, I tried to do what Wallace suggested; I tried to be more aware, but I always ended up slipping back into my default setting which caused me to lose heart. I noticed that even when I was doing seemingly altruistic things, I had other motives. When doing service, I would be thinking about my college applications and how much better they would look if I logged just a few more hours. When I would clean my room to help out my mom, I would really be trying to manipulate her into letting me stay out just a little past curfew. Even those everyday good deeds, I would do just so that other people would like me more and think I was a better person.
But this awareness wasn’t a solution, because being aware of an issue does not just make that issue disappear. So I thought back to the times I have been most unselfish in my life. Those were times that I can truly see the pain someone that I love is dealing with, and can imagine myself in the same situation. In those moments, I am not thinking about myself at all, but rather anything I can do to help that person. This was it. All I needed to do to stop being selfish was to actively empathize with people. But when I thought deeper into this, I realized that even empathy in itself is selfish. We have to apply other people’s struggles to our own life and imagine how, if we were dealing with the same issues, our lives would be affected before we can truly understand and feel for someone else. We have to connect with other people by first comparing them to ourselves.
We are all selfish. But those people who truly act selflessly, are those who best use empathy. They use their selfishness for good rather than evil. Maybe, this means that there should not be such a stigma around selfishness. Instead, we use our selfishness to better empathize which will lead our actions to be selfless.