Self Interest

I wish it were true that altruism automatically conferred security, comfort, acceptance and respect to all those involved. I believe instead that self-interest is what drives most of us, most of the time. That certainly is true for me. Questions then rise about what our self-interests are. What would make my life wonderful?

I read with interest the comments of a woman who works in the media. She experienced a health crises from working 18 hour days and concluded that she needed to examine her priorities. She decided that pursuing wealth and power shouldn’t take precedence over her health, and built more sleep and exercise into her week.

Caring for her health will increase the likelihood that she will be able to pursue wealth and power for longer, but will all her efforts result in a life she views as meaningful, joyful and satisfying?

What is best for us? What do we even use as a yardstick to measure the concept ‘best’. I’ve seen studies that suggest that wealthy people aren’t happier than the general population and it appears to me that those in power often don’t seem to be enjoying it.

We are animals, with the essential needs of any animal – air, water, food, an appropriate environmental temperature and health. We are here because of ancestral urges to procreate. We are social creatures with needs for companionship, community and communication. Our humanity adds layers of desire for beauty, meaning, respect, self-expression and love.

How are we to fulfill all of this – for that are is what we seek – to have not merely some, but all of our needs and wants met. We are surrounded by answers. Some from the media which tells us such silly things as buying a certain kind of toilet paper will bring happiness. More pernicious are suggestions that we need to look a certain way or own the correct objects to be worthy, accepted, important, successful, attractive.

As ubiquitous as these messages are, they probably influence us less than the fact that we are surrounded by people who act as if the media messages are true. Conversations with relatives, friends and colleagues include references to getting and wanting. If those we know and care about are focused on these methods of finding not merely happiness, but fulfillment, surely we should be focused on them as well.

The trouble is that none of this will bring lasting satisfaction. Think of your favorite food. Think of how good it would make you feel to eat a large portion. No matter how good you feel after eating it, in a short while you will want it again.

The same holds true for whatever purchase you feel will make you happy. It might, but it won’t for long. If you’re fortunate, in time that ‘thing’ will merely become familiar. Too often it will wear out, require effort to be maintained or protected, and will be replaced in your desires by something new.

Take a moment. What would make you happiest? Money? Power? Success? Each of those could also lead to isolation and insecurity, for each could be lost.

How about relationships – being part of a family, group or community? Put more simply, how about love? Not the romantic all-encompassing love with a mythical perfect partner; but companionship, concern, acceptance and respect that can connect friends, extended families and collegial groups. Caring about one another. Caring for one another.

For me, the best form of living on this human plane is this type of interpersonal connectedness. It requires significant time and resources. It creates complications and inconveniences. The older I get, the more see the importance of family and friends.

What I own, what I accomplish falls away when compared to a warm greeting from a friend or family member.

Where does loving God fall into a consideration of what’s best for us? To love God completely is to lose control of one’s life. God may demand hard things of us, including setting us on a difficult and lonely road. Why would we pursue a relationship with God?

I’ve known three gifts that flowed from paying attention to God – spiritual joy, serenity and tastes of heaven on earth. They come and go, depending on how wisely I’m conducting myself.

Spiritual joy is different from the exuberant happiness on the faces of the winning team’s fans. Spiritual joy comes from knowing God loves us. That knowing sparks an emotional response in our heart and soul that transcends human concerns. I can be ill, hurting, grieving or fearful – and yet joyful under those feelings because God loves me. That awareness can fade if I become preoccupied with concerns of this world. But joy will return when my life is more balanced.

Serenity comes from the experience of God’s forgiveness. A certainty that God will love me and that I will eventually be in heaven frees me from fear. So much of contemporary life, even in our affluent society, is tinged with fear. Fear of losing jobs, spouses, investments, possessions, status. Fear of failure, rejection, illness and death.

What a blessing to be able to replace all of this with serenity. Yes, I will know illness, loss, failures and rejection. All that pales in relation so the fact that God will always love me. It’s a question of priority, and mine is God’s love.

While I can often feel spiritual joy and serenity, I have only briefly known heaven on earth. In those moments, I feel connected first to God, as well all that is on the earth. All is well, because I am right with God. I know joy, bliss and peace. What a blessing to be so aware of God’s presence.

This happens when my will is perfectly aligned with God’s. I want nothing other than what God wants. The trouble is that as a weak, flawed, damaged and selfish human, I so rarely can manage to align my will with God’s.

I want, I want, I want. And in that wanting is my frustration and misery. Buddhists have it right. Desire is the basis of suffering. If only I had the wisdom and self-control to put aside wants and reach for God.

Matthew 16:25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.

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About Michael Resman

I'm a retired pediatric Occupational Therapist. I now write books and serve as Clerk of the Rochester MN Monthly Meeting. I've helped helped edit WCTS and serve as the organizer for our gatherings. Since July 5th, I'm a grandpa!

One thought on “Self Interest

  1. It is not that ‘looking out for my own interests’ is Bad and ‘Altruism’ is Good. “When the Great Way is lost, we get Benevolence and Righteousness.” That is, ideals don’t get you there.

    Seeing that ‘I’ and ‘them’ are one being, that I can’t gain anything that matters apart from other people, or harm them without harming myself, that helps — Seeing that giving and accepting are one act that needs us both, that it’s counterproductive to harm myself “for somebody else’s sake”, that kind of viewpoint helps.
    When the Biblical writers spoke of “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” I think they got that wrong — or had to put it in potentially-misleading terms to make some meaning available to people like us who imagine we know ‘Good’ from ‘Evil.’ We have a momentary sense of what is immediately good or harmful to us; but we lack God’s eternal sense of what is truly good for us.

    And hence we find God scary. God might think that eating a bad fruit and getting kicked out of the Garden will help us develop as God intends… while we might think we’re under a ‘Curse’ [with good reason, of course!]

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