Egoism should be neutral. Like any tool, it can be good or bad.
Yes, you can be a self-absorbed, egocentric (note: egocentric isn’t always a bad thing either), self-absorbed, pompous mutt (those are bad words).
But in our society, we live with the strange duality that we’re too egoistic and at the same time, not egoistic enough.
Let me explain.
Egoism, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, is “a doctrine that individual self-interest is the actual motive of all conscious action”. Basically, everything we do comes down to the fact that we’re doing it because we gain something from it.
Which is true.
Even the most self-sacrificing person will act in accordance with their inner self. Their self-sacrifice might be because they believe in what they’re doing, or because they fear the consequences of not acting that way. Both, however, are based in something their brains are telling them.
But we’re getting philosophical.
What I want to point out is that our society decries egoism for everyone except the most high-status individuals. Rich, powerful people are supposed to be self-absorbed. That’s what our cultural trope says (the fact that there are self-sacrificing rich people aside).
We view egoism as bad, as if we’re somehow taking away from everyone else by giving to ourselves.
Sometimes, that might be true. If there is a single bag of potatoes, taking it all makes others starve. But the world isn’t a bag of potatoes. The world is big, complex, and full of opportunities.
That’s where egoism, and egocentrism, comes in.
We’re supposed to take care of ourselves. Not because we’re bad, or selfish, or evil, but because if we rely on someone else to do it, we’re losing effectivity.
Here’s an example.
Take two people. They’re ideal. They’re prefect for each other. They love each other and are perfectly willing to be 100 percent self-sacrificing in order for the other person to be happy.
Will they be happy? Absolutely happy?
No, they won’t.
Because unless they’re also perfect mind readers, or completely one-track in what they want, one person will only have a rough model of what the other person is thinking and wanting at a particular moment.
If I love cake, but I’ve just eaten some, and you give me more, I won’t appreciate it as much. The effectivity of giving me cake is less than maximum.
There’s no way for you to know that, unless you either ask, and I’m able to verbalize my needs, or you can read my mind.
Same with our perfect people. They can’t satisfy each other’s urges fully, because they can’t know what the other person is thinking, feeling, wanting at all moments in time.
But let’s make them just a tad egoistic.
No, let’s make them a lot egoistic. Half the time, they’re doing things only for themselves. The other half, they’re doing things for each other. We get a 2 x 2 matrix, where person A can be egoistic or self-sacrificing, and person B can be egoistic or self-sacrificing. This leads us to four possibilities.
- A egoistic, B egoistic – no synergy. Both parties are off doing their own thing. Lost time in the relationship.
- A self-sacrificing, B self-sacrificing – our original setup. Both are trying, and are coming up with non-optimal solutions. Or they’re arguing about who gets to be nice to whom.
- A self-sacrificing, B egoistic – magic happens. A is giving, B is receiving. Their actions co-join. B can direct what A gives, or what B wants from A. B can focus on maximizing their own well-being, without guilt. It’s a situation where B has the most pleasure. B is storing up energy, goodwill, and generating gratitude towards A.
- A egoistic, B self-sacrificing – as above, but with switched roles. Still good.
See what happens? When one part is egoistic, and the other is giving, that’s a perfect combination. It’s fulfilling to both parties.
Because giving to someone we love and care for makes us feel great. It’s what society is based on, that we can give to others. But that’s only half the equation. The other half is that we can take from others as well – take what they freely offer.
Here’s where egoism breaks down. Or rather our view of it breaks down.
We see egoism as being all evil. Someone who takes all the time. But true egoism isn’t like that. True egoism isn’t greed, it’s maximizing your personal well-being, which, unless you’re a sociopath, includes being kind and giving to others – as long as you have the energy and will to do it.
That’s where our society breaks down. We’re supposed to do so much for others, to give to your children, our spouses, our jobs, our societies, our friends, groups, churches, ideas, that we forget to give to ourselves, and give our friends, family, and groups the chance to give to us.
Take a look at how children play in daycare. Yes, they are egoistic, and the social dynamic doesn’t start to develop until they’re around three or four years old and can realize that other people are individuals, with their own wills.
But at the same time, they give to each other. Share toys, share joys. Show sympathy when someone else is crying. Giving is just as natural as receiving. It’s what our society is based on.
But not only.
Because there’s a egoism part, too. We have needs.
Health. Love. Appreciation. Time alone, time together. Time to rest, time to create. Time. All those are needs, things we need to go from surviving to living. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
There’s nothing wrong with satisfying your needs. But our society says there is.
Our society says that we should stop being selfish. Work for the common good. Take care of others. Sacrifice your self.
There’s a shame in taking care of yourself. Even when you need it, even when you’re dying inside, forgetting yourself, stressing your body and mind to the max in the rat race, the emotions race, the society grinder. Being someone means not being yourself. That’s the requirement. You have to be someone in society, someone to others.
That’s what you need. Being true to what your needs are.
Me, I need to be alone. I also need to work out, to sleep enough, to walk in the forest now and again. I need to take my fishing rod and head for the lake, to listen to the wind, to write another story.
All those things take time. Some of them take money, others take attention. Those are resources, and limited resources. When I spend them on myself, I’m not spending them on someone else.
But if I spend my time, my effort, my soul on someone else, or worse, something else, like a job, a mortgage, an endless meeting timesink, if I spend all my resources on that, and nothing on myself, I’ll end up one way.
Tired. Sad. Bitter.
We all need to think of ourselves from time to time. We all need to be egoistic upon occasion. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we will fade. We will lose our energy, our passion, our joy. All those things that make us good to be around, all those things that we willingly give to others in order to make them happy.
Because it’s very hard to focus on making someone else happy if you’re miserable yourself. Making someone else happy becomes a chore instead of a joy.
And that’s the trap of generosity. Too much giving means the giving becomes something you hate. You have to force yourself to do it. Force yourself to work, to clean, to buy a gift for your friend, child, spouse. Force yourself because you no longer have that inner spark that taking care of yourself gives you.
If this is the way you feel, you need to put yourself first. Not forever. Not always. But there’s nothing wrong in putting yourself first some of the time. Remember A and B above? You need to optimize where you’re spending your resources. Even if it makes you feel guilty.
That’s not your voice. Not if you spend most, or all, of our precious time, energy, and joy to help others. That’s society’s voice, that little whisper of “you must, or you’ll be a bad person”.
Stomp on that voice. Rip it out. Silence it.
You need to take care of yourself. You need to keep your nose above the waterline or you’ll drown and everyone you’re keeping afloat will drown, too.
There’s nothing wrong with being egoistic. Not when the alternative is destruction of your self. Not when it’s the only way to make do.
Stealing from others to feed your own ego – that’s bad. That’s what the dark side of egoism is. But how common is it?
Not very. Most of us don’t engage in destructive egoism. Most of us engage in destructive self-sacrifice. It’s what we’ve been trained to do. It’s what our society, our culture, demands of us.
And the few people who are held up as examples of egoism? Those who don’t have any limits to how much they can demand?
Sociopaths, most likely. Or people who’ve fallen so far into the pit of self-denial, self-destruction, that they no longer can be part of a functioning group. They no longer see the needs of others, only their own.
Most of us aren’t like that. Most of us care.
Most of us care too much. Most of us need self-care.
Egoism. It’s not a bad word. It’s a tool, for good or bad. Use it to help yourself so that you can help others, afterwards. Take care of yourself so that you have the energy to take care of others.
Be egoistic for the good of all.