In Defense of Selflessness
I would not have braved my rather humble faculties to take up a line against my peers, whose arguments here show them so much my natural superiors, did I not detect among their responses the strain of an idea whose danger I am made familiar by brighter minds than my own. If I am permitted my small conversance with this topic, then what little knowledge my experience provides is offered up not from a desire to please myself, but instead from a duty towards my fellow creatures in staying the loss that comes from renouncing the most soulful parts of their nature.
I send forth my attempt at the great personal cost of being wrong, or worse, of earning the ridicule of my peers, that I may enter the timeless tradition already here begun: to sharpen the knife of our best discovery and strike deep into the bones of an idea so that with some luck we may all land upon the pith of truth. A most selfless endeavour indeed.
To those who deny the possibility of human selflessness, there seems a dual reasoning running through your most discerning rejection. The first of which is the unknowable nature of the unconscious will that may or may not govern our actions, despite, of course, our deliberate intent-- a quite reasonable consideration in an age burgeoning with the curiosities of modern psychology. The second part of the opposition comes according to the logic which says that any instance of selflessness is de facto selfish because it emanates from a personal desire or ‘wanting’.
On the first head of the argument:
To assign a reason to something is and must always be to recognize the most conscious force that determines it. There is no sense in decommissioning the concept of selflessness because the actions that it inspires do not occur under the complete purity of its name, that there may be some unseen influence which acts concordantly to it, in a lesser or greater capacity no one can tell; just as there is no sense in refusing to see a mother’s tenderness as ‘loving’ because there is a Darwinian theory which states it her “maternal instinct”. Is it not good enough that what she sees reflected in her mind is an irrefutable and conscious devotion to her child whose strength rivals all of earthly gravity; must we even consider the unintended effects of hidden and concealed biological stimuli before we can affirm that she is ‘loving’? So it must be with selflessness. When has anyone ever uttered the word, or any other for that matter, especially those which describe human states of being, with the purpose of carrying it beyond its first most relevancy; namely, the conscious reason which governs it? If they are to remain useful to us, we cannot expect our words, themselves merely title descriptions of reality, to push past their most intuitive rendering into subtler and subtler degrees of possibility, becoming so blended and irresolute along the way that they thereby lose all their power. At the level in which we see and comprehend the world, it is vital to preserve the forms, the categories to which things do or do not belong, assembled in our comprehension of them through language which reflects our deliberate aims.
No one can see to the end of their unconscious will, so then can nothing be properly given a label of intent? Every label describing a human condition is imperfect, as do we judge and think imperfectly, if only because it would be impossible to trace into the infinitude of ramifications comprising every feeling and motivation. We give precedence to the most dominant intention, to the one that represents the foreground view, and we do not strip ourselves of descriptive concepts because there is an inevitable background of unwitting effects. The same argument can be used against selfishness in the same way: ‘The greedy banker hordes his money not because he is selfish, but because he has been socially conditioned to seek money, which is operating in his subconscious unbeknownst to him.’ The same undoing resulting from this argument applies to anything, really. In other words, our theories of the unconscious mind cannot be rallied together as a case against the meaning of the word itself, especially as we all find good and proper service by it in our characterizations of the people and world we live with.
On the second head of the argument:
You must forgive me if I am reminded somewhere in this discussion of the solemn epiphany usually accompanying a juvenescent acquaintance with Ayn Rand. Not that I would accuse any of you of having such simple philosophic tastes, but I see in your reasoning the same tendency of using semantic limitations to arrive at what is rather a quite trivial observation. The logic runs similar to Rand’s objectivistic selfish virtue: Since everything ‘I’ do is done because I ‘want’ to do it, ergo everything is ipso facto ‘selfish’. This should not be taken as some revolutionary syllogistic achievement, but perhaps something more akin to a logical fallacy. Yes, unsurprisingly, there is a funny paradox of language here that plays out as a truth to selfishness, but we are quite more advanced in our understanding of language than this to not know that ‘wanting’ is a linguistic construct that has important nuances. It seems there is some confusion of the terms of reference. A ‘want’ is simply an impulse that emanates from the self, as any conscious feeling does; a ‘selfless want’ is that determination to act for another’s sake, primarily; whereas a ‘selfish want’ is that kind which is concerned only with one’s self, also primarily. No self-directed action can take place without its subject ‘wanting’, or to use a term which means precisely the same thing, ‘willing’; this, however, does not mean we should get tripped up when we see ‘want’ or ‘desire’ because of its affiliations in describing selfish behaviors. Never can there be a free act undertaken, selfless or otherwise, without its creator agreeing in his own mind to do it; and this agreement must by syntactic necessity follow the formula, “I want to”. Is this really the same as that selfishness we know to exist in some crude and vile individuals who carry out their will wholly with a penchant to their own self-regard? Something is not selfish because the person who carries it out ‘wants’ to do it, or derives some pleasure by it, rather because he thinks only of himself while doing it and concludes upon the matter with himself alone in mind. Similarly, a sign of selfishness is not to be found in the first-person singular; how else can someone take part in anything, especially love, without first invoking “I”?! A lack of regard for another and a refusal to enter them into your consideration: this is what selfishness must mean if there is to be a shadow of a hope in preserving any sense to it.
I doubt there is a single thing formed in the animus of one’s free will which does not accord him some pleasure in the doing and some measure of gratification in the obtaining. We need only recommend ourselves to Freud’s pleasure principle in confirming this. Yet, I do not see the confliction between this and selflessness; can you not find pleasure in accommodating yourself to another’s interests without it attaining to selfishness? Does it inexplicably revoke the selflessness inherent in attending to another, to the sacrifice made for them, and to the freely given service put out when many another activity would have pleased you and you alone? Doubtless there is personal reward in many things thought to be classic examples of selflessness, and so do they still come about through much suffering and toil. The ancillary feelings of delight that arise as a consequence to selflessness exist alongside it as well as subordinating themselves to its primary quality which remains intact. With much relief then, compassion in its essence remains, even with many supplementary pleasures kept as private comforts. Have we forgotten how to hold two opposites together in admixture? Elements of both the selfish and unselfish can exist jointly in a single act without it having to be reduced to either or, and while still allowing one trait to become the defining feature. All proper classifications of any kind are accorded this way. If someone gives selflessly, though they are warmed by it and acquire satisfaction through it, is it fundamentally still not worthy of that titled generosity if its express purpose is to help? Surely it is not hard-won in the acknowledging that what strikes us at our basic integrity when we partake of the neighbourly grace and instinctive charities of the soul, instructed by our most human sympathy, is the given impression that there exists selflessness in our better nature.
There’s a world beyond yours. Not in a galaxy far far away. Not in a collection of systems in our own Milky Way. It’s much closer than that. You might think it’s in our solar system, somewhere just right beyond our planet’s atmosphere but you’d be mistaken. Yet from where you stand, it can be considered equally out of reach.
But how could that be the case when it’s much closer than that? So close, yet so far. A span so great that no amount of rocket fuel and modern technology could help you navigate this distance. That destination, is just in our backyard…each of our backyards. And that my fellow man, is YOUR world.
This is my world and you’re just living in it! Is this what it has come to?
In the meantime, someone on the other side of the planet has taken the same kind of attitude. Before it’s said and done, your neighbor, your uncle, your cousin, and everybody in your household including yourself, try to become like God because we’ve created our own little worlds. But we are only made in his likeness, nothing else. He made this whole universe.
In all its grandeur, we belong to a time which is barely but a blip, which I imagine is not even equivalent to our Maker’s blink of an eye.
We are just worlds within a world. The world we create is only an exclusive one that is populated with our own ideals. Ruled by our own beliefs that albeit inhabited by others, our own individual pursuits bear more importance than that of the next man.
This could very well be the reason why there is this inconsiderable distance between all of us. In reality, if one does not acknowledge that intelligent life exist outside of earth, then one doesn’t have a reason to consider any lives but the ones on earth. Yet if someone believes in the existence of other inhabited worlds, they still may feel that it’s so far, making it hard for them to even care about them being there at all.
What more if we scale the universe down into the vast emptiness of our minds even the best of us can have at times? We might not be able to grasp the concept of another world that our neighbor could be living in. Perhaps coz we are too preoccupied with living in ours. Maybe the divide that we so much so created plus the mandated social distance that we have to keep, eventually make it just too unfathomable for us to care.
Could it be that the human race is only trying to compartmentalize? Because we have suffered such a great trauma. But this gap is collectively a result of our actions or the lack thereof and surely it is only we who will be able to bring it back together.
Why can’t we? Should we continue to act like we are light years away from one another? We can’t come to a realization that your world rotates on the same axis as mine? It revolves on the same exact orbit. We are located on the same atlas, much less breathe the same air.
We are mere mortals.
We all came from a womb, made from the same materials as the stars. We were connected in the vacuum of space before we ever came to be in this place. We are all actors in this grand stage we pass thru called life.
We are much closer than we think. We are much more connected than we might feel. Your energy I can feel with words unspoken, if I listen with my heart. If I reach out to you with my soul, I can feel your pain. One day soon, I am hoping for someone to let me welcome them to this world in which I live in. OURS.
Praise and Criticism for Prose Yet Again
Seems as though people are afraid of abstract poetry here in Prose, as if they think they'll fall into the shadowy abyss...
As for that and your internalized fears, all I have to say to you is...it's too late!!!!...
We're all swimming around in the abyss whether we like it or not....
I have to thank Prose for many things...It's praise and openmindedness, though infrequent at times has brought many magical results...The human eye is a many splendored thing because everyone experiences things in a fantastically unique way...Thank God or else we'd all be in a sci-fi movie where the powers that be were force-feeding us a unified way of thinking, and to deviate from this path would lead to death...As it is in America this is actually going on but at a much less accelerated rate as to barely notice unless if you're hyper sensitive(so, chances are, if you're on here and a poet, you have sensed it!!).
Poets have historically been called upon to fight the ever present bulldozer of conformity, and this is a constant and pervasive fight; although to many it is an unconscious fight!...
It's a fight nonetheless, and it exists like that woman I acknowledged yesterday at that car repair store by the gas station near my house(I don't like to name names) that I never knew existed until I deigned to acknowledge it's existence. Existence is silly that way.
What am I saying??? I guess that we should fight for our right to be better listeners, because it's hard to write a cutting edge poem, much less write a poem at all. Give a hoot, and try a bit of everything out; otherwise what's the point? Might as well be sanctioned to only eat bologna every single day for the rest of your life, That is all.
Wooden Puppets and Idiots
One of my favorite stories as a child was that of a wooden puppet carved by a puppet maker with a big heart. The wooden puppet came to life with human movements, a cute likable personality, and the desire to become a real boy. His mysterious blue angel granted the wish only when he proved brave, truthful, and unselfish. Easier said than done and yes, he lied, and as he did his nose grew. But the real story was as he became more boy-like (human) he turned to more lies and worse, the selfish pursuit of immediate satisfaction. This pursuit of false happiness lead him to a place called Pleasure Island where he and other boys had free access to all the beer, cigars, games, most of what their uncontrolled souls desired. As they consumed their pleasures they started turning into donkeys, or jackasses. After escaping the island as a boy puppet with donkey ears and a tail, he learns that his heart broken puppet maker dad had been eaten by a really large whale while searching for him. And yes, in the end, he saves them both from death.
Why is it that so many humans feel the need to partake on this selfish journey to pleasure island versus living a life worthy of being brave, truthful, and unselfish? I think selflessness exist but most have to fall prey first to the pursuit of the false narrative of happiness found in immediate gratification. The reality of happiness is that the sometimes unsexy sacrifices in life that defines the bond of human relationships is love.
The unseen line
Every action that people take can be placed along a hidden, impossible to ascertain criterion:
to what extent is the action taken with the actual benefit of others, and to what extent is it done with a the interests of the person committing in mind.
altruism as a concept would be some extreme point along this spectrum. something that is done completely without any thought of personal benefit, even an indirect one.
some would say that all motivation derives from the self and consequently cannot be truly altruistic, though the personal benefit may be unclear, or likley to materialize only in the very long run.
another popular argument is the selfish gene theory, whereby any apparent act of self sacrifice by one organism to another is predicated on benefitting those who share genetic material (such as offspring) , thus indirectly benefitting the particular bloodline , of which the perpetrator is a member. acts of apparent altruism between genetically distant members is less likely, and can be explained as a general benefit to the species in some way.
the realist school sees all actions as derived from man's desire to increase his benefitting factors or at least protecting them from being reduced. therefore altruism is absolutely impossible.
but here is the thing, almost everybody is capable of empathy, and most also have a sympathetic reaction to pain and suffering. it could be argued that we experience such an emotional reaction as a way to anticipate others of our kind and improve our chances of survival and propagation. on the other hand, most people also experience sympathetic reaction to animals, trees, innanimate objects and even fictional charachters. clearly, anticipating any of these can not benefit us as organisms. but still we can't help ourselves.
it is this sympathy and these objects that prove, in my opinion that there are more occasions of altruism than we could guess.
many people do good things to others. they sacrifice little or a lot of their resources and even rarely, their lives, to others. while it is easy to argue that they are doing so out of some hidden motivation, it could be just this uncontrolled sypathetic reaction, that drives them and possibly ovverides considerations of their self interest. many dramatic instances of saving lives, for example, happen with very little time to calculate all the angles of benefit versus risk.
another explanation to altruism cpuld be that the assumption that we all function rationally and in the best of our interests is totaly false. the human mind is a massively complex thing. it oparates far beyond the very basic drives that our primitive ancestors had. we integrate massive amounts of axperience and interact with others in sophisticated and diverse ways. somewhere along this complexity, many of our ideas, and drives are displaced or warped to form convictions and choices that are far from self serving and rational. while this often leads to catastrophic results, it also has a chance of causing people to behave altruistically , without any conscious anticipation for some sort of benefit.
in the end, altruism is the extreme point of spectrum, just as narcissism, and psycopathy are the other end. the displays of benevolant self-sacrifice and dedication to others are uplifting and inspiring to those that hold within them the desire to do good. even if this desire is a selfish drive, it results in normatively rasing the bar for others. somewhere along the line, people stop calculating and start giving.
I'd say it does.
However, the people who exhibit it, in a world filled with generally selfish asshats, often get drained so quickly by others they wipe out and become either hollow husks of themselves or cold, apathetic shells now resentful of the world that took their light.
It’s important to remember always: Secure your own mask before helping others.
Because sadly we don’t teach people to take care of themselves, even if we expect them to step up and take care of others.
affections and affectations
You could argue that if selflessness is rewarded by admiration, the admiration itself could plausibly be an ulterior motive for selflessness, which means that being selfless could actually be quite selfish, ergo selflessness is unprovable, even if it does exist.
“You are who you are when nobody’s watching.” ~Stephen Fry
"You rang? Don’t answer that. There I go running my mouth again. Though the question remains....
Yin & Yang. There’s two side to every coin. Yada Yada Yada. All of humankind have the ability to be both helpful and harmful. Appearing both selfless and selfish many times a day. That being said above the line and below? The line being equal. The law of averages would argue.
One truly selfless would not act upon their own desires? But that of another’s. Would any self gratification be considered a breach of contract? Oh so many avenues must be considered.
Take for example if I hadn’t tipped the parking attendant this morning. (Cheap) And I didn’t hold the elevator for Jane. (Prick) Then proceeded to pass on helping an old lady across the street. (Bastard) And only a moment later I fail to hold the door for a women in distress. (Dick Fuck)
So I can beat the same women to the elevator and abandon Jane one more time. (Get Fucked)
Now being self aware. I can see how without any context it would appear I’m a selfish bastard. But if you would please let me describe exiting the office that same day. I do hold the elevator for Jane and I comment on her weight loss. She smiles and thanks me for not letting her skip the stairs. Of course I escort her to our parking garage. Getting the door. Placing myself between her and the old bag lady who try’s to stab people with a flaccid dildo in the crosswalk. After trading pleasantries with Jane. I do the same with the parking staff. I then tip Eddy good and I’m off to the races. A tale of two faces.
But what if I told you everything I do is for my own selfish pleasure. For the rush my ego gets finding the favor of others. How far is to far when being a service to others? (Sycophant)
Or what if refraining from doing oneself any favors is due to feeling they’d be undeserved?
(Self loathsome) And everything else I do is just to distract me from doing something for myself?
Selflessness is a delightful idea, a quality capable of transforming the world to a better place, but it’s impossible to obtain. No matter how much a person might sacrifice for the benefit of another, no act can be completley selfless. Take for example, a situation where a young man helps an older woman carry groceries across a busy street. The young man is already late for a meeting, exhausted, devastated by a recent break up, and wary of walking in heavy traffic, but helps anyways. On the surface, the act has a resemeblence to altruism; the older woman reaps the benefits of the interaction, while the man seemingly gains nothing. He didn’t receive a tip, given a thanks, or enter the beginning stages of a new friendship; he assisted and went on about his day. The older woman gained relief in a dicey situation and received assistance without any sacrifice.
However, the man and the act, is not altruistic or selfless. On a concious level, the man could be motivated for a variety of reasons. Perhaps he’s seen an accident in a similar situation, therefore he’s fearful of the potential outcome if he fails to assist. He remembers the intruding image of the previous accident, an image lingering in his mind to this day.
Or perhaps he’s never seen such an accident, but knows he’ll feel a miniscule sense of guilt in his gut if he just watches. The assistance he provides prevents that feeling from coming to fruition.
Maybe the man doesn’t acknowledge or have the capacity to feel guilt for a lack of inaction, but he knows what makes him feel good; helping others. He knows small sacrifices, like walking the older woman across the street, makes him feel positive emotions. Whether that be a feeling of importance, security, kindness, or just happiness, he benefits in some form.
Now, the motivation to assist others while sacrificing in some form solely for the purpose of positive feelings is admirable, but not selfless. The man may truly enjoy helping others, but the question becomes, why is it enjoyable to help others? Why is it important that another person is more comfortable or safe? The answer lies in the man’s past experiences and current state of mind.
It could be his recent break up has striped him with a sense of vulnerability, a vulnerabilty he sees, and can alleviate, in the older woman. It could be a subconcious awareness of the possibility to use the selfless act as a valid, worthy excuse for his boss when he arrives late. It could be a subconcious realization, based on past experiences with exhaustion, that acts of giving provide him energy. Or perhaps it could be he’s tired of not-so-irrationally fearing heavy traffic, spurring himself to action in the name of self-improvement.
Even if the man fails to recognize all of the above and is absolutely unaware of his emotions and motivations, the nurture of his life remains. The man has lived a life full of positive/negative reinforcement, punishment, observation, emotions, and teaching that led him to make his small sacrifice.
For a truly selfless act to occur, the giver must be free of past experience, ignorant of any pros and cons, and unable to gauge future feelings and consequences; all of which are impossible.
While altruism is a noble concept, a proof a person can be good, even better is the act of recognizing motivators. Recognize sacrificing for others is beneficial to yourself, and don’t feel guilty about why or that it exists, use it to sacrifice more often.
Selflessness, A Conundrum
I find it hard to believe that there might be people out there who do not think the world would be a much better place if we weren't all at least aspiring to selflessness. Greed would be automatically, by definition, abolished instantly. Assuming selflessness means serving others in some respect, violence would go as well.
I also believe the idea of selflessness exists, like the idea of loyalty or of being a fan of Nascar racing, but whether these exist in reality is another question. As soon as one feels hunger, or thirst, one is no longer being selfless, and the ignoring of these two things causes death, which is bad.
Which is why I believe the question of whether selflessness exists or not, or whether it is good or bad, or just about any philosophical questions right up to the big one–what is the meaning of life?–are merely ways of wasting time civlization has invented by being there.
What animal asks about selflessness before ingesting a meal?
What uncivilized persons asks him/herself about the meaning of life?
What creature outside the walls of our magnificent urbanized world wonders which member of the Marvel Universe would you eff, marry, or kill?
These ideas only have meaning for us, trapped inside this world without meaning, and, certainly, without answers. We could argue about anything until the cows come home.
Which we do...