Self-Interest & Self-Love
Does anyone else feel slightly unnerved about the individualistic nature of the modern self-help mantras? ‘Prioritise your own happiness’, ‘boundaries’ and ‘self love’. In one way I can totally see where they are relevant. If you’re the kind of person who gives unendingly to family or a partner, to a point where things feel one sided or you feel unappreciated or taken advantage of then sure ‘prioritise your own happiness’. If someone in your life shouts at you on a regular basis, it’s probably a pretty good idea to make sure you assert what is and isn’t acceptable. And if you go through your days feeling self-loathing then you better find a way to love yourself! Equally though throughout history has the message not been that redemption can be found through helping others? That’s the message that seems to run through most religious traditions and most humanist ethical philosophies.
I can’t help but wonder then if the heavy focus on the self is just a reflection of our current cultural priorities. Our generation has emerged from the philosophies of 80’s Thatcherism, which (controversially at the time) stated that ‘there is no such thing as society’. The implication being that we are all individuals who need to struggle and fight to prioritise our own success and happiness. However, in historical terms this runs counter the philosophies of most cultures throughout most time periods. Even now in many cultures the idea of the self as something separate from the community is alien. In fact many people have suggested that the age of individualism in the west has led to our chronic mental health problems. We strive, fight and compete to get ahead and do it all on our own. Yet in happiness studies, those who live in wide and interconnected communities come out the best, regardless of poverty levels. This implies to me that there is something fundamentally true in the idea that those who value the happiness of others as highly as their own are happier people.
The majority of hunter-gatherer communities were organised on egalitarian principles. The best hunter would not eat more food but would share it with the community and as a result benefit from others skills. Also in these communities I imagine that everyone despite differing views would have to find ways to communicate and get along. I feel like in our new social media worlds we find and group with people so like ourselves that we end up creating internally conformist groups, which are dismissive of the ‘outside world’ and the challenging ideas that those outside might hold. We need to relearn to connect to those people we don’t necessarily understand!
Most people are able to connect on some level with any other person, that’s the incredible skill of humankind. I listened to a podcast the other day about Hunter S. Thompson and it described how after spending years hounding Nixon in the media about his corrupt and ultra conservative policies, when meeting in person Thompson and Nixon just had a nice chat about American Football. There’s a lesson in this. We don’t need to build more walls or boundaries between ourselves and people who don’t understand our views. Your granddad will probably never completely agree with you on gender neutrality, that’s okay! You were raised in different cultures, with different priorities, find something you can connect on, there will be something.
Hasn’t this been the big lesson of Trump and Brexit? We need to connect with people not like us! Weren’t we all sure there was no way in hell the majority of people would vote leave or vote Trump. And yet we were wrong because we failed to engage with people outside our small social bubble.
One of the most healing and transformative aspects of mystical experiences and psychedelic trips is the literal feeling of becoming unified with the universe. The realisation that the separation between self and the outside world is imaginary. Lots of people are finding these experiences now because it is the perfect antidote to the self-interested philosophies of consumer capitalism and also a necessary shift if we are going to deal with the most pressing threats to our planet. I understand the need for solitary time (I am most definitely an introvert) and protecting yourself against particularly destructive people, they are all legitimate but I think it’s also worth being vigilant about the philosophies of self-interest creeping into our understandings of self-betterment.
I’m interested to hear your opinions on this and anything I may have overlooked.