The Vice of Selfishness

Santa Clarita Signal • Opinion Column • Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Vice of Selfishness

David W. Hegg

 The term "vice" usually conjures up the idea of habits considered damaging to those who pursue them. Things like gambling, drinking, smoking and stuffing your face with chocolate come to mind. But perhaps the greatest vice is one that is almost never considered as such. It is seemingly innocuous simply because its prevalence in society has made it so commonplace. I'm speaking of the "vice" of selfishness. We all know that selfishness comes pre-installed on the human hard drive. It's everywhere, and while it manifests itself in myriad ways, I've recently run into a few that are particularly telling.

During one vacation day I found myself on a public bench at Avila beach. My wife had gotten lost in the mother of all flip-flop shops, and I was enjoying the sunshine, and conversing with another man whose wife and daughters were inside a clothing store. When they came out, it was clear that the Mom had found a great deal on a sweater for her teenage daughter. "Only $7" was her victory cry. "But, I don't want it" replied the teen. "But its beautiful, just your color, and we got it for almost nothing!" The argument went back and forth, with the teenager becoming more and more recalcitrant. She refused to appreciate the sweater, and anyone who has raised a child knows why: She hadn't been the one to choose it!

 One trait of selfishness is the refusal to appreciate something on its merits if you didn't have a part in its creation. Everyone who has ever shopped with a teenager knows that you never suggest something for them. If you do, they're sure to hate it. Their vice of selfishness demands that the value of something is measured by the extent to which it was their idea.

Unfortunately this aspect of selfishness persists into the adult years as well. Suppose your company decides to come up with a new product or system. You watch. Those not selected for the project team will seldom give approval to the new idea. And while they may hide behind the insistence that they are only doing their job and pointing out all of the challenges involved with implementation, what they're really saying is "since I wasn't invited to be on the team, I won't be for it until I show through my insightful pessimism that I should have been on the team in the first place." Again, they refuse to judge the product or idea on its own merits, and insist on looking at it through the lens of selfishness.

Another illustration is in the political arena where an idea or program advanced by one party will be summarily dismissed by members of the other party simply because they didn't think of it first, or have a part in its inception. They almost never critique the idea itself, on its own merits, but rather they take umbrage with the process to which they were not invited. Like the teen that hates the sweater they only like what they think of or are asked to help create.

What is it about the human soul that insists on a "self first" orientation? Haven't we learned that history makes heroes of those who sacrifice personal rights and wellbeing for the good of the group, for the advancement of what is right? Why are we so quick to take credit, but so slow in granting it to the ideas of others? If we are honest we will admit that most of the problems we face as a society stem from an unwillingness to put others before self, to consider the welfare of the group as more important than our own, to consider ideas on their own merits rather than on whether or not we were asked for our opinion along the way. Since when is the process of more value than the product?

America is awash in the vice of selfishness. We care more about getting the credit than about the problems being solved. We fight for our rights as individuals to the detriment of our families, our companies, and our society. We believe a process that includes us is more important than a solution that does not simply because as a nation we have turned selfishness into a virtue and re-named it "looking out for #1." But deep down we know that self-centered living, self-centered business, self-centered politics, and self-centered families have produced a relational pollution just as toxic as dirty air and fouled water.

But I do take heart in knowing that humanity has always recognized the tragedy of selfishness, and taken radical steps to challenge its supremacy in the human heart. For every Christ-follower, the most powerful antidote continues to be a voice still calling through the ages from a hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus Christ - God's Son - proclaimed from a cross he didn't deserve that through his death we could have life as it was always meant to be. And that life was one freed from the tyranny of selfishness. His entire mission was a study in radical humility. That which fuels selfishness - the lie that we must perpetually be looking out for ourselves - has been forever cast aside by the reality that we can rest in the promise that God loves us, and will supply all that we need.

Such knowledge ought to free us from the necessity of self-promotion, and "me-first" living. But then again, we have to believe that humility is actually better. We all have to fight against the destructive tendencies of our humanity, whether it involves a new sweater, a new product, a new idea or the possibility that something that didn't include us may end up being an advantage for many.