“The most selfish man”, a sage once said to me, “is the one who is the most selfless.”
“The most selfless man,” he continued, “is the one who is the most selfish”.
I couldn’t quite grasp what he was trying to get at, in fact I dismissed these words as incoherent mumbo-jumbo emanating from a deranged man; but these kept resonating in my mind for long.
It is easy to understand why someone may be selfish for it is only a regular human behavior (more like a benchmark behavior these days). At best, it is a defense mechanism triggered when one feels threatened. At worst, it is the most diabolical and debased human trait; usually witnessed when people trample over and disregard all moral norms for menial personal benefit.
Selflessness is rare. It is self-negation – the ability to suppress one’s needs for the sake of others. Clearly speaking it is the willingness to give precedence to others’ most trivial wants over one’s most basic needs. For obvious reasons, in a purely materialistic view, this behavior is completely counter-intuitive.
Viewed in the material sense, selfishness pays and selflessness only brings grief. The saying “Nice guys finish last” perhaps captures this sentiment most succinctly and accurately.
Where does all this leave the aforementioned sage and his purported words of wisdom? Was it just incoherent blabber or was he shedding pearls of wisdom?
Try getting a closer shot, it is clear that his words cannot make sense if one takes an entirely material view of things. In fact, the only way any sense can be made out of these words is by taking an all-encompassing view of life and the world: a view which encompasses the life of this world and the life hereafter.
The life of the hereafter, being eternal, naturally has more significance attached to it. The significance of the life of this world, being ephemeral, pales in comparison. This does not mean that the life of this world is worthless, it only means that the true essence of this worldly life lies in using it as a vehicle to success in the next.
When man internalizes this concept of prioritizing the life hereafter over the life of this world, it results in a radical transformation in him. He becomes far-sighted and believes that any success that is limited only to this world is not real success. His goal is to succeed in the eternal life and he will go to any limits to maximize his chances of that.
He has single-minded focus on achieving eternal success and in a way can be viewed as being selfish towards that goal. But this is an enlightened form of selfishness: selfishness that illustrates itself in selfless behavior in this world. Much like material selfishness, enlightened selfishness kindles a desire to succeed; but not at the expense of others.
Conversely, the man who de-prioritizes success in the eternal life and does not attach much importance to his eventual outcome will behave selfishly. He is oblivious to it, but in reality he is short-changing himself.
The sage was surely right. He could have been more straightforward and clear though, but then the words would have lost their effect. His words were worth their weight in gold, and if we all took them to heart, the world would be a better place to live in.