That human beings are selfish seems a truism. Just look around!
Of course, in times of adversity you do have sufficient justification to pursue your self-interest, to the exclusion of all other interests, but let us, for a moment, step aside from the justification exercise, and look at selfishness objectively. Let us move away from the standard position that the self is there in everything I think and do and therefore I will have to, by definition, be selfish, and that even in my “unselfish” acts, there is selfishness. This is only a clever justification for all the ruthless and insensitive promotion of self-interest that is practiced.
If selfishness is really so natural and desirable, we need to immediately remove a word from the dictionary - “empathy” or putting oneself in another person’s shoes. You may say the two can co-exist. The point is they run in different directions altogether. One may even be the antidote for the other. Also, selfishness is natural and instinctive; empathy requires an extra effort.
Empathy is difficult. Let’s be clear. Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes does not mean imagining or reasoning out his condition (even if he disagrees with it); it requires an understanding of a very high order which results in your feeling through the other person’s world and understanding his situation completely – his fears, dilemmas, insecurities and strengths – all from his perspective. If one can truly empathise, the other person would develop a feeling of being understood and you would not find it very easy to be evaluative or judgmental about him and his action choices. And that is the test. The other person should feel understood. It’s obviously not very easy. In a brutalised world, where violence is growing day-by-day, insensitivity gets included in the survival kit. Insensitivity becomes a natural given. Sensitivity is rare.
But the fact is empathy is desirable, not just for the other person, but for us - to enrich our life and feel a sense of fulfillment, while contributing to make the world a better place to live in.
The first step is to move away from the position that man is by nature selfish and therefore it’s OK to be insensitive to others and the world in general. That way, why do we have to restrain our natural polygamous nature or the violent streaks in us? Once we realise that empathy is desirable, not just for the collective good, but for our good, for a better family and work life, then we would have begun our slow journey into empathy territory. It may seem difficult and unproductive initially, but as time passes, surprise rewards will pop up and your cold insensitivity will melt away to be replaced by the warmth of sensitivity and the journey of life will slowly seem less formidable and maybe even positively enjoyable.
All ancient cultures extolled the virtues of moving away from being totally self-centered and advocated the adoption of a lifestyle that is responsive to the needs of others. It was a philosophy and way of life that accommodated other interests while pursuing one’s own interests. That way of living in harmony is perhaps badly needed in a world that is threatened by unbridled violence, destruction of nature and global warming.
Have few desires.
- Lao Tzu, (Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism)