Outgrowing Selfishness

I’ve always thought of myself as a very self-centered person. Autism could be a contributing factor to a lot of my more selfish tendencies. It’s not ever been a malicious selfishness. I’m not acting in my own interest at the expense of others. If I ever have, I’ve only unwittingly done so. It’s more like sometimes I forget to consider other people entirely, because I am too busy being consumed by my own inner world. I can still remember when I was very young, noticing that other people would often compliment someone else’s clothing or hair, etc. I remember asking my mom why I never felt the urge to do that, even if I did like something about someone else. I assumed it was only because I was shy and socially anxious. Only after I began forcing myself to compliment people did it become a comfortable, natural habit. I was surprised to discover that it even made me happy.

As I continue to get older, I’ve noticed myself becoming more and more interested in being of use to other people. And the way that thinking of and helping others is its own reward. I once thought selfishness was just a personality trait. I’ve now started to wonder if it’s simply an aspect of youth. I remember hearing about older people focusing their remaining energies on giving back to the community and supporting their family. It seems like in the later stages of life, giving back, sharing what you’ve learned and acquired with others, becomes the most personally fulfilling thing. I always had a hard time imagining myself in this role. Now it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

I’ve heard the metaphor of life being compared to a wave in the ocean. In the beginning we are one with the sea, then we crest for a time, the illusion of an individual entity, before eventually falling back into the water we came from. The longer I live, the more convinced I become of two things about this life: Everything is a cycle, and everything is one. These are the fundamental truths I keep coming back to when I have my spiritual experiences with LSD. It is comforting and profound. I can see it everywhere I look. It gives me hope that every ending inevitably leads to a new beginning on both a micro and macro scale.

The idea of the fluctuation of selfishness throughout life seems to fall into that framework as well. When we are born, we are totally dependent on others. Although no longer in the womb, we are still very much an extension of our mother, feeding from her very body to survive. Then we slowly but surely begin to gain independence. We revel in this newfound freedom, we test it’s limits, we find our individuality, just like the wave on the ocean. For awhile we are lost in the intoxication of this illusion. The illusion that we are separate.

No matter what, if any, religion or spirituality you subscribe to, getting older tends to remind us that we are all one, with our fellow humans, other species, the earth, everything. We all depend on one another, we all live through and because of one another. We’ve all sprouted from the same source, just as we will all return to it someday. Like waves in the ocean. But just like the ocean, the tide is relentless. There is no ending to the ebb and flow, there is a constant undulating cycle. It is a beautiful thing to be reminded of this. For me especially, it is nice to be reminded of the way things change, the way I change without even realizing it. What may seem terrifying and impossible to accept one day, seems as easy as breathing when the time finally arrives. We don’t need to worry about how we will handle situations in the distant future, because this current version of ourselves won’t be the one dealing with it anyway. We’ve simply got to keep going and trust that when we get there we will be the person we need to be to get through it.

So there is nothing to fear. Not even death. Because no matter how many cycles come to an end, a new one starts simultaneously, spiraling out into infinity. For a time it may be important for us to be selfish, to learn how to best take care of this newfound self. But there is also beauty and comfort in playing with the very idea of “self.” What made me decide to draw the line where I have? Why is this body the only thing I consider me? Maybe I am actually more than this. That boundary seems to be expanding, little by little, every day. And one day this little brief wave that I am will have fully submerged once again.

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Raised as One

I’ve read that Asian cultures generally practice collectivism. Focusing on the betterment of the whole rather than the goals and desires of the individual. This can be seen reflected even in anime. It’s easy to notice the difference between these shows and American programs. The characters are much more concerned with their family, friends, community, and humanity as a whole than themselves.

In the United States, this is almost diametrically opposed to the way we live. Americans seem to always put themselves first, maybe extending this to close family occasionally. We practice individualism and pride ourselves on our country’s focus towards individual freedoms. And while this does allow more personal independence, it feels rather isolating.

As a species, we evolved to live and work together, to support one another in order to survive. We were never meant to be on our own. I think this is one reason feeling isolated leads to so many mental health problems. Our deepest instincts are crying out that we are not safe, that something is wrong, that it is bad to be alone, dangerous even.

All of this got me thinking back to how ultimately we are all one. Irrevocably connected, pieces of a whole. Seeing what a difference different cultural beliefs can make in a society, I began to wonder. What if we took collectivism even farther? What if humans taught their children not only the value of looking out for their friends and neighbors, but that those very people were in fact a part of them, an extension of themselves? Imagine how different the world might be.

This is more of an interesting thought experiment than something I believe could or would actually be put into practice. However, I would love to see what kind of world that would create. If we were all raised from the very beginning to believe that we were not merely this physical body we inhabit, but actually just a branch of that massive tree of life, of existence. How different would society have developed? Would we still have wars? Would we have destroyed this planet that we are an extension of?

I don’t pretend to know what effect this type of culture would have on humanity. But it is certainly interesting to think about. I know I wish I had been raised that way. So that I could fully rest in the belief that I am merely a cresting wave in the ocean of existence. Maybe then I wouldn’t retain this fear of returning to the ocean.