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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The Weight of Our Actions

I was watching some show the other day and there was a scene depicting a kid being bullied. This led me into a long reverie about when I was younger and all of the cruel acts I witnessed or was the target of in school. I particularly remember being made fun of one day for drawing anime in class. Even though this was a mild mockery and only happened one time, it led me to stop drawing for years. Back then I would have done anything to just not be noticed.

I began pondering the vast difference in experience between the two parties involved in bullying. To the bully, it is pretty meaningless. It seems like just a way to pass the time or have a laugh. It isn’t a significant moment in the bully’s life by any means. However, to the one being bullied, it can be a life-changing experience. It can change them forever. It cuts so deep. It leaves emotional, if not physical, scars. I doubt most bullies ever stop to consider this inequity of experience. While it may mean little to nothing to them if they were to just not pick on someone, the target of this attack could be spared so much anguish.

This lead me to thinking about how this might apply in other areas of life. As I don’t bully people, I wondered how I might still be able to use this insight myself. I started to consider all of the things that my mother would always pester me to do as a kid. Clean the cat’s litter box, put my shoes away, put my clothes in the hamper, wash the dishes. I get so frustrated with my past self for being so obstinate and inconsiderate. It would have taken me only a few minutes to do all of those things. I had plenty of free time. No job, school was always easy. I spent most of my time lounging around watching TV. Yet I couldn’t be bothered to do these tiny little things that would have meant so much to my poor, overworked, under-appreciated mother. I want to kick myself every time I think about it.

At the time, of course, I didn’t consider this at all. I was just thinking about myself. I started to wonder if there were still things like this that I overlook. Are there still tiny things that I could be doing that would mean the world to those around me? The answer is yes. Sometimes it’s just the gesture itself that counts.

Whenever I am at work and I go wash out my coffee mug, I will also wash any other stray dishes in our communal sink. And sometimes my coworkers repay the favor, washing my mug before I get the chance to. I don’t think any of us would be overly burdened by washing our own mug once a day, but it is still touching each time I find it already washed. There are small acts of love and consideration like this waiting for us everywhere.

Perhaps you just got a bonus at work and have extra cash so you leave a generous tip for your waitress even though she was struggling to provide good service because she was new. You might not think twice about this event, but the waitress may be moved to tears. You never can tell what small acts of kindness like this could mean to someone.

I hope to carry this out in my own life in the form of a game. Just a lighthearted excuse to be creative and find new ways that, with minimal effort, I can spread maximum kindness. It might look like cleaning the snow off of my neighbors car in the morning after I do mine. Perhaps it’s giving some undivided attention to my pets when I first get home instead of immediately getting distracted by something else. Maybe it’s making a point to leave positive reviews online when I truly enjoy a place or product. All of these things would be simple enough, and not be burdensome to me by any means. But it could make or break someone else’s day, month, or even year! Imagine what it would be like if we all took the time to find these little opportunities for spreading goodwill in our lives. Let’s all try to do at least one small thing like this every day. It’ll be fun.

Seeking Redemption

Last night I dreamt about possibly the biggest mistake I ever made in my past. I woke up feeling weighed down by all those heavy memories. All morning I have been feeling ashamed and unworthy of redemption. When I think about terrible, selfish things I’ve done there are at least a handful of things that readily come to mind. Yet when I try to think of caring, kind, selfless acts, my mind goes blank. Am I really this awful person that I perceive myself to be? Or is my perception skewed?

I think most people make justifications and excuses for the wrong they’ve done. They allow these rationalizations to comfort their conscience. My mind tries to tell me that everyone makes mistakes, that I was young and na├»ve, that I would never want to hurt anyone. But I refuse these ideas outright. I feel at my core that I deserve condemnation for my actions, that if anyone knew me like I know myself, they would cast me out, and rightfully so.

Some people argue that altruism doesn’t really exist. Even kind acts are beneficial to the bearer. Yet most people, I imagine, still feel confident in their goodness after performing a good dead. I on the other hand, view the kind things I’ve done as others view their misdeeds. I minimize them. I explain them away. I tell myself that I’ve done these things out of my own self-interest. I deny any altruistic intentions.

What I’m left with is the guilt and blame of all the wrong I’ve done and none of the credit for anything decent in my past. Most people are shocked when they discover that I think so little of myself. “You are a good person,” they tell me, “You are so kind and compassionate!” But I shrink away from these reassurances. They don’t really know me, I tell myself. Then I feel even more guilty for deceiving them. It is a very lonely life, feeling unknown and unknowable.

I suppose there is really no way for me to truly know if the image I hold of myself is accurate. It might all come back to the grey areas I struggle so much with. Perhaps I am a bad, selfish person, but also a caring, loving one. Even so, I desperately want to atone for all the wrong that I have done, even though I am the only one who knows about a lot of it. I want to live a life that I can be proud of. I don’t want to keep lamenting these mistakes. I want to be freed from the sins of my past. I want redemption for myself, from myself.

I am grateful that I have the principles of yoga to guide me. Even though I feel a lot of the Yamas and Niyamas are out of my reach, beyond my capabilities, I still want to try to embody them. I want to become honest and upright, truthful and generous, thoughtful and helpful. I know that happiness lies within these virtues. I must believe that, regardless of my past failings, I am strong enough, I am intelligent enough, to change.

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