Confession: I am selfish. Consolation: So are you.
Selfishness has been passed down from one generation to another with no clear message. Each subsequent generation has been more confused about where selfishness stands and what it means. One thing is clear: You are selfish, and so am I. But that says nothing about either of us. While your selfishness could cause you endless misery, mine could be the reason for my abundant joie de vivre. This ambiguity leaves selfishness mired in a perpetual state of tension: Is it a vice or a virtue? Is it a compliment or are you just angry because you didn’t get the chocolate cake?
This is important because trends suggest that the mighty millennials may be the most selfish generation to have set foot on the planet. While this sounds like another addition to the let’s-bring-back-everything-that-was-last-said-about-dinosaurs-and-attribute-it-to-millennials collection, it may be one of the nicest things said about the generation by far. Anyway, now’s not the time for a selfie. In order to understand selfishness, we need to swing to the other end of the pendulum toward selflessness. You know, that thing every earlier generation seems to be.
Selflessness at first seems like this wonderful state of servitude where you are making the world a better place and sun is honored to cast its rays upon you etc.,. But, when you look close, it’s not very different from selfishness. If selfishness makes you regret looking forward, selflessness makes you regret looking back. In both cases, you are making a ridiculous number of sacrifices which you are completely oblivious to. If it’s health and relationships when you are selfish, it’s broken dreams and an ironical lack of fulfillment when you are selfless. We all have an erroneous belief that everything that’s falling apart when we are selfish will come together when we convert to selfless at a later point in time. But they generally fall farther apart. It’s a vicious pendulum and we are only exposed to the extreme ends of it. Of course, the natural recourse to everything mentioned so far is this idea called ‘balance’.
Balance is the broccoli of life. It’s good for you – it sounds cool just saying it – but you only start to think about it only when you are in your 5th serving of cookies&cream or when your head is stuck inside a bucket of cheese popcorn. “You ate a big tub of cheese popcorn? Down some broccoli in the night and you are good!” This isn’t balance. It’s nullification.
A selfish generation could mean we are making progress as a civilization. It’s inevitable that this selfishness will only become deeper with every subsequent generation. And selflessness is not the antidote. The answer lies in the freedom we have in choosing whether we make selfishness a vice or a virtue. Because that is what we are going to pass on.
With the selfish and selfless, what’s never going to change is the amount of sacrifice we are going to make. What can change though are the sacrifices themselves. That’s why it’s important to tune into the boring middle swarming with the most mundane, unexciting, uninstagrammable parts of life. In it lie the quiet sacrifices that you can neither count as evidence nor excuse. It’s like hiding a little piece of broccoli in your food every day and quietly eating it without announcing how awesome you are each time.
There’s nothing particularly selfish or selfless about these sacrifices. They are quietly passed down, mostly from the earlier generations. Only, we have stopped paying attention to these sacrifices because they aren’t big enough – great enough – heroic enough. But they are the only things we can pass on to preserve any virtue in the selfish. Often, we only tend to see the greatness that comes from the ends of the pendulum without the nullifying sacrifices accompanying them. But most times, it’s the unmentionable sacrifices in the middle that give us a strange fulfillment. It’s like the gentle joy of covering someone with a blanket as they sleep.
People don’t become heroes because they make these sacrifices. They become heroes because someone paid attention to the sacrifices and passed it along. And that is really what we need to retain any virtue in selfishness.