yet another entry on the nature of selfishness

This might skirt into the land of narcissism, but in my limited experience, I have found that most egoists are riddled with self-doubt rather than confidence. Maybe a few narcissists out there are genuinely confident in their abilities, but I haven’t run across them yet.

When we say ‘selfish’, we mean putting our own needs above others. I hate to shock you horribly, dear reader, but we all have to be selfish to some degree. When we are hungry, there almost certainly is someone else who is hungry also. By eating first, in a way, you are putting your own needs above theirs. Unfortunately millions of people go hungry every day, so most would consider this act not of ‘selfishness’ but of basic survival. If you don’t feed yourself, how will you be able to help those others who are hungry, after all?

Yet the line is again unclear. You could say that selfishness is when we put our own needs above others when the other people have greater need. The problem still remains, we need to provide for ourselves in order to exist. The reason we have the desire to help others is so that they may exist.

And here is, therefore, where I find the line personally. The line between self-care and selfishness is if you treat yourself as another person or as a better person than everyone else. Would you hate someone else for being slightly awkward in a social conversation at three in the morning? Would you hate someone for taking a night off to relax? Would you hate someone else for being potentially* obnoxious at lunch? Maybe, but likely far less than you feel towards yourself.

The uncomfortable fact is that we care about ourselves. We care about our own opinions and livelihoods. Thinking and acting on what we care about isn’t selfish, it means being a normal individual.

Again, here is where I reach out from my armchair to make broad generalizations about people, and I welcome a different perspective, but there tends to be a connection in that those who are selfish probably don’t engage in a lot of self-care. This feels counterintuitive, I grant.

By self-care, I mean being emotionally and physically responsible for your own well-being. This may mean taking a shower, getting enough sleep, eating well, or facing down a mysterious figure from your past. It means knowing where your limits are while pushing towards your goals. Selfishness, on the other hand, usually comes about as a result of psychological mismanagement.

Take the stereotype of the suburban neighborhood pest who is an envious self-absorbed prat. In this imaginary scenario, Neighbor Chad doesn’t seem to care about others and consistently hypes up his own baked goods while putting down other’s hard work. Why does he do this? Consider Neighbor Chad is insecure. He knows Sally Ann down the way has far superior blondies, but he doesn’t want to admit so because he has built up his confidence based upon the assumption that he is a good neighbor. He doesn’t want people to look down on him. He wants to fit in. Perhaps other factors in his life are making him feel like he didn’t reach his full potential, and he has bandaged his pride in said baked-good outlet.

At the end of the day, the man is still a prat. There is an instinct there to argue that everyone has had their pride damaged, and being a hypocrite is still an unfair practice. We have social sanctions and rules for a purpose, living in a community demands some standards. But everyone has some part of their life that they struggle with, and for Neighbor Chad, that struggle is pride and self-worth.

That very struggle, at its core, is the inability to care for oneself, to know when you need to push for greater things and take out your struggles in better ways. It’s self-control, but self-control requires knowing when to step away and when to step forward. And that takes time, as well as the all-important ability to have healthy connections with other people.

In sum, selfishness is a tricky fellow to pin down. It’s always more complicated a situation than we think. We all make mistakes and we all make a fool of ourselves, the trick is how we handle ourselves in the aftermath of these normal standard errors.

compassion and not hating people

Humans have a habit of seeing things as cause and effect. You drop a dish, it will shatter. You close your eyes and wake up at a different time, you were asleep. You say something rude to person A and they are angry.

Emotions are wild entities because while they usually have some manner of correlation between cause and effect, the proportions don’t always fit like we want them too. When a person is under an incredible amount of stress, sometimes something as small as a sad puppy picture can make them cry. Furthermore, even when we know it’s selfish and unrealistic, we can find ourselves angry or frustrated that things don’t work out the way we want.

No human is the center of the universe, and yet getting that into our skulls is another matter entirely. We want things to go well, even when we realize that the bumps and swerves and mountains in the road are necessary to feel that things are going well.  It’s a dangerous habit to claim a thing is part of human nature, but it is easy to feel that we all want the best for ourselves, in some form.

I feel like the more I learn about humans, mistakes, crime, and every other bad thing we go through, the more I feel that we largely have a cooperation and interaction problem. Many, yet not all, diseases come from our inability to care for ourselves and others. Both psychological and physical problems we face are often the result of not having the necessary social support, whether that be financial, emotional, etc.

People lash out because they are hurt. It doesn’t mean they should have lashed out, it just explains why they did so.

When it comes to cause and effect, we can simplify the situation down too much. We can point to A, B, and C, but we might miss the emotional reality of a person altogether. It’s not so simple. Events and actions add up over time. Experiences can remind someone of another experience.

When we look at ourselves, we know how it feels to be in our own shoes. However, being compassionate toward others is important. Communication and balancing out complex interactions is a tightrope walk with the whole circus making a ruckus around you, and it’s a tightrope for everyone.

There are so many things we don’t know. Being loving towards both ourselves and others begins with realizing that. Everyone is doing the best they can, as messed up as they may end up. The only way any of us gets to something approximating normal is by depending on others and letting others depend on us.

systemic

When looking for a job, it’s amazing how often that little word, ‘qualifications’ comes into play. Sure, maybe I’m organized, interested, and able to communicate well, but I definitely don’t have 3+ years of experience in the field. To get that 3+ years, however, you need a certain major, be unpaid, and work part-time.

As young adults, practically all the people I know my age want to be able to survive. Financial stability is a dream. Gone are the days when a person works for a single company for most of their life, can depend on having medical insurance, retirement, and time off. The rise of the gig economy is flexible, but it comes at long term cost, heaven forbid a person gets sick or old.

There is a lot of anxiety in my generation, both the mental health issue and also as a result of systemic issues blocking us from getting the resources we need to survive and have a stable life.

Anxiety, in a way, keeps us alert. It keeps us awake. It makes us think about the options so we don’t fall into an easy trap. Anxiety as a mental issue is when that alert is never turned off, when all of the options are considered over and over again, and when thoughts themselves become the trap.

When the world is stable, anxiety can be solved through therapy alone. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help retrain cyclical thoughts and meditation can help calm a restless soul. The problem is that our current age isn’t so stable for a lot of people.

Not all Millenials are rich white middle-class young adults who eat too much avocado toats. Millennials are in fact the most diverse generation compared to anyone before it, in beliefs, race, sexuality, etc. Anxiety is a real problem, perhaps as a mental issue itself for individuals, but also as a result of the problems this generation and the one after faces with climate change, global shifts towards populism, mass incarceration of black bodies, etc.

Anxiety is something that needs to be managed, and absolutely we should do what we can to change it on the individual level. However, a generational wide problem is indicative of a system-wide problem. We should all try and push ourselves to understand the bigger issues and see what we can do to solve the systemic issues we face.

Photo Credit: Enya Callibuso

laziness doesn’t really exist

Why are people lazy? Actually, let me rephrase that. Why do people give up on their goals and settle for the minimum? “Lazy” is a term we hear over and over again, but what human genuinely desires to put in the least amount of effort? Theoretically, if we care, we will put in the effort.

That theory doesn’t always hold up though. There are plenty of situations where we do care and technically have the time but we still take the ‘lazy’ option. It’s terrifying to think about how often we become okay with the minimum. And we are okay with this minimum because it’s exhausting to go above and beyond.

This is a bit of a radical position, but I’m here to defend it: few to no people are actually lazy.

The main distinction between those who are determined and work hard versus those who slack off is that those who work hard have figured out how to handle their own emotions. Everyone has things they have to do that they don’t want to, and we also all have things that we care about. “Lazy” people, of course, have things they care about. It’s rarely a lack of desire and more of a lack of self-trust. To put yourself out there takes courage. It takes drive, and it’s risky. Doing the minimum feels safer.

Self-discipline and self-trust are emotional skills, and they take time to build up. One builds up self-discipline by doing things. Doing things takes commitment and being okay with failure. Self-trust is the same, it takes commitment to yourself and again, being okay with failure.

Whatever we do or don’t do is a result of how we feel. Sure, rationality is an important mediating factor, but we will find a way to justify our actions in some manner, no matter what route we take. Even if you are trying to go after the most ‘rational’ answer, you are beginning the search with an emotional basis and social context. We should research what we can, make sure we have the full picture of the situation, etc., but our emotions aren’t something to fear. Having emotions is what gives us the drive and purpose in our lives in the first place.

When it comes to laziness then, “Oh, go pull yourself together”, isn’t going to be useful advice for most people. Learning to trust yourself and follow through on the promises you make to yourself is a pretty massive undertaking. It requires confidence and acceptance of risk. It’s a big deal, especially for those who don’t have the highest self-esteem to begin with.

If you have difficulty being self-motivated and getting things done then, try to look within yourself. Forgive yourself. Be patient with yourself. Start with little things, and build up your own trust in yourself. Change is difficult but worth it.

 

Photo creds: Enya Callibuso

That glass with water in it to a 50% capacity mark

There is almost always an opportunity to be unhappy. Life can be brilliantly beautiful and yet an individual can still choose to find how horrible things are or will become. I’m not talking about depression, but rather the poor cognitive habit that people can develop that turns them into pessimists.

Often, pessimists might claim they are not pessimists but realists. They understand the risks that may come in a particular situation and want to be cautious. They might feel that optimism is for the young, naive, and delusional. However, being realistic is an interesting claim to make, because optimism and pessimism aren’t about the facts but the interpretation and desire behind those facts.

If we were being realistic, the glass that’s either half full or half empty exists in a context. Maybe you filled it up to the top and have drunk half of it. If you want more of the drink, you’d be more inclined to call it half empty. If you wanted less of it, you’d be more inclined to call it half full.

There’s also social convention at play; how many people legitimately refer to a cup as half full? The statement may or may not actually reflect the optimism/pessimism of the individual who says it.

In order to be ‘realistic’, one has to acknowledge both the opportunities and risks with a course of action. A pessimist might miss the opportunity, an optimist might miss the risks. It’s rarely a boon to be on the extreme either way in the long run.

In some ways, the question of glass-half-full or half-empty is a question of trust. It’s an indication of how a person feels the world around them is worthy of their trust. Do they want to blindly trust others or shut themselves off? Like most things, the answer is somewhere in the middle.

However, my focus is on pessimism because people are rarely consistently too optimistic. It’s good to be careful, but fear can go overboard very easily. Gratitude is the best way to help temper our habits of becoming too shut down. Of course, things can go wrong. At least one thing always will, life is unpredictable. The truth of the matter is that we need to be careful in watching why we’re being careful.

Are assuming the worst because you are afraid? Are you assuming the worst because you’ve been hurt before? For those who claim to be realistic, are you actually taking probability into account, or are you making an interpretation separate from the stats?

 

focusing on living

I’m going to cleverly pretend I haven’t skipped a month’s worth of blogs and instead jump right into it: we need to focus.

I don’t mean focus on a task, although surely that’s a real possibility. Instead, what I mean is focusing on existence. Focusing on knowing who we are and what we can do. Focusing on living, on making the most out of every day.

The truth is, I love movies. I love TV shows, Youtube videos, and generally wasting my life watching ridiculous things that make me forget my worries. Media is a more successful numbing device than most drugs because it’s socially acceptable.

Media, however, is the sort of thing whose excess can drain us of all our will. It’s not just that though. Everyone has that thing that wastes time. They have that area of their life where it’s easier to just go along with it than force yourself to stop and do something that you’d enjoy better.

You know what makes an artist good? Practice. Creative talents may limit the where and what of an artists’ content, but some good ol’ practice is the primary thing that makes them good at what they do. Cooking is the same thing. Exercising is the same thing. The bottom line is if you want to do something, you need to start doing it.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t rest. Of course, we should! We need to be still more. We need to drink coffee or tea in the morning and just let time itself be. We need more sleep, more downtime with people we care about, and plenty of other things. Absolutely we need to relax. My chief argument is with the habit we have of using activities as escapism, rather than approaching life as something we are living.

Maybe we feel controlled and limited by the things around us. That’s because we are. We limit others, and others limit us. When we exist in a social world, our lives end up entangling with each other, and it becomes harder to separate the individual from the group. Having that social trust and interaction is precious, above the individual at times.

Yet we also need agency. Your life is your own. We can give out our love, our time, our being to other people, but the only person who experiences what this world has to offer is you.  Your actions, whatever they end up being, fall on you.

So focus! Focus on existing, on asking yourself why are you doing what you are doing, and if it’s the right thing to do. Check in with yourself, we only have so much life to live.

stop making emotions your enemy

When someone moves on the floor above me, it sounds strangely like water. Sloshing. Although I seriously doubt any individuals are shoving large bins of water around. However, I can still imagine that scenario if I desire because I can choose to see things in a different light.

We can’t change our beliefs. We don’t choose what we believe or what we feel. Our experiences give us information and we translate that information in a way we want to. Our emotions take us over whether we realize it or no, always lurking and influencing our decisions, no matter how rational we desire to be. Even our desire to be rational is still fueled by emotion, like pride or a sense of honor.

Yet the word “lurking”, isn’t fitting. Emotions aren’t evil. Emotions aren’t some sort of enemy we have to conquer and keep down.

Nor is rationality evil, or leading us to an unhappy life. People who advocate for getting rid of all emotions or all rationality are both irrational and likely spurred by emotion.

We need moments in our lives where we do the irrational thing. We need those moments where we act silly because the alternative is to be miserable. There comes a line between carrying out one’s responsibilities and also not dying a dull bore.

When we villainize our emotions, we begin to make ourselves into the enemy. We begin to shame ourselves when we don’t feel the ‘right’ thing. It feels good when someone we don’t like embarrasses themselves. It feels good to hate annoying people. It feels good to be vicious from time to time. Feeling that inclination doesn’t mean you are evil, it means you’re human. To some, that might be one and the same.

But that’s not the point. The point is that we shouldn’t shame ourselves for something we cannot control, but rather focus on what we can control. Why are you feeling good when your peer fails? Ask yourself about the feeling. Track down where it’s coming from.

Many times when we feel hatred, we feel it because we are afraid. Hatred is an outlet for our insecurities. It feels good to hate because it gives us a sense of power, and that power stabilizes us for a time. It doesn’t solve the core problem, however. It doesn’t solve the core insecurity and ignoring it will only make the problem grow worse.

Our emotions are not foreign entities, they are us, and we should embrace them as we gently guide them. We can choose to see things in a different light. We can’t change our immediate perceptions, but we can change how we interpret what they mean.