Everybody is selfish. Meaning, we all do what makes us happy. You, me, Jesus, Buddha, Mother Teresa, the Pope, everybody. No exceptions. All that distinguishes us is how directly selfish we are.
This is the big aha! I got this morning while reading another Anthony de Mello book, “Awareness,” that the great god Amazon recently delivered to my door. As I noted in my “Be a spiritual rebel!” post, I love de Mello. The love affair is deepening as I dig into this new writing. He writes:
I’m saying that ordinarily everything we do is in our self-interest. Everything. When you do something for the love of Christ, is that selfishness? Yes. When you’re doing something for the love of anybody, it is in your self-interest.
I’ve always been suspicious of people who claim that they “live to please the Lord.” Or the guru. Or their spouse. Or their children. Or whoever. Give me a break. People live to please themselves. We’re selfish creatures. Always have been, always will be.
It’s hard-wired into our consciousness; it’s the way things are. A friend is fond of saying, “We’re pleasure-seeking missiles.” I like the image. Whatever source of pleasure attracts us most strongly, zoom, our happiness homing system causes us to fly right up its tailpipe.
True, often it seems like people behave unselfishly. But if being unselfish didn’t make them happy, they wouldn’t act that way. So, unselfish people are selfish too, because they’re out to make their selves happy. If saintliness made saints miserable, would it be a virtue?
De Mello, a Jesuit priest who knows the games religious people play, puts it this way in “The Masquerade of Charity.”
Let me summarize what I was saying about selfless charity. I said there were two types of selfishness; maybe I should have said three. First, when I do something, or rather, when I give myself the pleasure of pleasing myself; second, when I give myself the pleasure of pleasing others.
Don’t take pride in that. Don’t think you’re a great person. You’re a very ordinary person, but you’ve got refined tastes. Your taste is good, not the quality of your spirituality. When you were a child, you liked Coca-Cola; now you’ve grown older and you appreciate chilled beer on a hot day. You’ve got better tastes now.…But you’re getting your pleasure all the same, except now it’s in the pleasure of pleasing others.
Then you’ve got the third type, which is the worst: when you do something good so that you won’t get a bad feeling. It doesn’t give you a good feeling to do it; it gives you a bad feeling to do it. You hate it. You’re making loving sacrifices but you’re grumbling. Ha! How little you know of yourself if you think you don’t do things this way.
If I had a dollar for every time I did things that gave me a bad feeling, I’d be a millionaire by now. You know how it goes. “Could I meet you tonight, Father?” “Yes, come on in!” I don’t want to meet him and I hate meeting him. I want to watch that TV show tonight, but how do I say no to him? I don’t have the guts to say no. “Come on in,” and I’m thinking, “Oh, God, I’ve got to put up with this pain.”
It doesn’t give me a good feeling to meet with him and it doesn’t give me a good feeling to say no to him, so I choose the lesser of two evils and I say, “O.K., come on in.”…That’s the worst kind of charity, when you’re doing something so you won’t get a bad feeling. You don’t have the guts to say you want to be left alone. You want people to think you’re a good priest!
Self-deception of this sort cuts at the heart of genuine spirituality, which must be based on truth. It leads us to put on a false smile and utter “Praise the Lord!” when we know damn well that this whole hypocritical show has only one purpose: to praise ourselves. How am I coming across? Did the congregation see me acting humble? Should I utter my silent prayer more loudly next time?
Cut the bullshit. Revel in your selfishness. Be happy because you’re happy. Discard the fiction that your joy in life is to serve others. You’re out to please yourself.
Proudly proclaim your allegiance to the Selfish Club. It’s six billion strong, membership granted at birth to every soul on earth, and growing daily.