There is a fairly common belief that part of the basic nature of humanity involves some amount of selfishness. That, instinctively, people will look out for number one, and when it really counts, will leave their fellow man behind. This allows things like Capitalism and Liberalism, with their heavy emphasis on individuality and striving to raise oneself over others, to become bio-truths. When the paradigm of the day declares selfishness to be a part of who we are, the exploitation and oppression that arise from it become even more difficult to fight and overcome. If one despot is overthrown, for example, another will simply take his place as that is how our basic chemistry makes us.

Is it true? Are we naturally selfish? I am but a humble blog writer with no relevant credentials, but I would disagree with this assertion. The belief that we would naturally be selfish is based on the idea that self-preservation would allow our ancestors to make sure they weren’t eaten by a saber-tooth tiger. They only had to outrun the person they were with to survive, after all.

It is of course impossible to know for certain what makes up our biological impulses compared to what is nurtured into us, but I believe there is evidence even today that disproves selfishness as a part of our nature. The easiest place to look to see if self-preservation prevails is a place where human beings are being threatened with death every day. So let’s look at war.

The book On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman tells us that the utmost fear of a rookie recruit going in to battle is the fear of dying. However, the greatest fear of soldiers who have seen combat is letting their comrades down. The conditioning of soldiers is intended to strip them of their humanity until they are unfeeling killing machines, and this typically works. However, basic instincts would remain, and what we see by those who have faced the opportunity to either embrace their allegedly selfish nature, or stick with their friends, is that they almost always stick with their friends. Those who are ignorant of the ways of war maintain the selfish fear of personal death likely due to the common cultural belief that we are inherently selfish individuals, but those who have lived it show that the true instinct lies in our connection with others.

This phenomenon doesn’t just appear in war. Parents on welfare will frequently go without food so that their child will be able to eat. When the situation becomes dire, it seems that our instinct is to take care of those that we love, not abandon them in order to save ourselves.

So… cool? Most people associate selfishness with “bad” anyway, so why am I bothering to disprove it as a bio-truth? Because when we see it as a part of who we are, it seems almost necessary that greed and corruption permeate all levels of our culture. To strike back becomes futile, and the common trend is to join in and try to survive as best you can. We even have philosophies based on selfishness that are wildly successful. To achieve happiness, don’t change the world, change the way you look at the world. Reality is based on our perception and experience, and if one focuses solely on the way they perceive things, they would be able to achieve whatever they want: within the realm of their own existence.

But our reality is not the only reality. Each reality shares an interconnected dependence on all the realities of all the individuals around it. Think of it as a a lake, and every action we take is a stone dropping into the water, creating a ripple. If everyone throws in a stone, each ripple overlaps with all the others, influencing the pattern on the surface. We are not individuals, we are individuals within a community, and to ignore that is detrimental to both the community as well as the individual.

So if our basic instinct is to embrace our love, why is there selfishness? The entire premise of Grossman’s book is to look at what enables one human to kill another, and I believe the conditions that allow us to kill allow us to perform all manner of terrible things upon each other, and I look at this premise more in depth in my blog post here. I also believe that what we call empathy, or our ability to perceive the experiences of others through our own personal lens (oftentimes to the detriment of that other) allows us to act selfishly without recognizing the consequences of our actions as damaging to others.

How do we fight the selfishness that appears to be overpowering our culture? Foster the interconnected in our communities, listen instead of assume, disable the conditions that perpetuate both figurative and literal violence, and above all else know that deep down we are creatures of love. Expand the circle of that love to include more than just family and friends, and a difference will be made.

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