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The Selfless Paradox

We tend to think of selflessness as something we should aspire to, right? Particularly for women, it is deemed an admirable quality – our patriarchal society has long lauded the women who prioritise others over themselves, and sacrifice their own needs and desires for the sake of others.

What kind of image does “selfless” bring to mind for you? For me it’s either a serene saint, smiling beatifically as they burn at the stake (WTAF is that about?!), or an harassed working mother desperately trying to be everything she thinks she should be as wife, mother,, daughter, friend, employee/colleague/manager, not to mention probably PTA member, Guide/Scout leader and several other volunteer roles, and quietly burning out while everyone else is too busy praising her selflessness to notice.

Frankly, neither scenario seems particularly aspirational to me. Apart from anything else, there’s far too much burning for my liking.

Our understanding of selflessness is generally about the prioritisation of giving over receiving, but this begs the obvious but rather tricky question of how can you give of yourself to others if there is no self to give?

If you no longer have anything to give, what happens to those who needed what you gave? What happens to you? Do you drop dead, or do you go into some kind of decline through which others must care for you? Leaving people in the lurch or expecting someone else to sort out your mess is generally considered selfish, not selfless, isn’t it? And is this a record for a paragraph made up of questions? If not, should I keep going?

But I digress. A lot, usually. To get back to the point (yes, there is actually one): there is a fundamental, inherent paradox at the heart of selflessness. This is eloquently described by Andre Duqum in the caption of an Instagram post regarding his Know Thyself conversation with Dr Gabor Mate:

“If our ‘service’ is self-sacrificial, where we forsake our own needs and well-being in the pursuit of helping others, it will drain us because it’s coming from trying to fill a hole within ourselves and ultimately it will leave us less effective in our ability to serve.”

To be able to look after others, you have to look after yourself. In other words, to be selfless, you have to practice self-care…but if you’re caring for yourself, you’re not being selfless…

Now I feel I have some insight into how God felt when he disappeared in a puff of logic in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” – and if you’ve not read that work of absolute genius, please do so… after finishing this blog, obvs.

While we endeavour to recover from the puff of logic, let’s consider a slightly different perspective on the selfless thing.

If something is selfless, it doesn’t boost the self, right? So being selfless has to mean doing stuff that is entirely for the benefit of others and from which we get nothing. But do we really get nothing back from helping others?

Let’s go back to the saint being burned at the stake. We're talking about people who refused to recant their beliefs – who felt that the horror of being burned alive was outweighed by the value of ensuring that the message they believed in survived for the benefit of others. The ultimate selfless sacrifice…

Or was it…? Didn’t they also believe that they were being fast-tracked to heaven? It’s a mindset I struggle to get my head round, but they believed that a short-term roasting not only saved them from the fires of eternal damnation, but also guaranteed infinite bliss. Pragmatically speaking, that’s quite a win, no?

Somewhat less gruesomely, volunteers in charities also get described as selfless. I’m one of those volunteers: I give a significant amount of time and emotional energy to a charity on an ongoing basis and I can tell you not only that it is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in more than half a century on this planet, but also that every other volunteer I speak to says the same thing. Exactly what the reward is probably varies depending on the person and the context, but we are all experiencing some form of benefit to ourselves from behaviour that some call selfless.

As Andre Duqum and Gabor Mate put it, it can be about trying to fill a hole within ourselves. The fear that we’re not good enough causes us to try to prove that we are. Other people’s admiration and respect for our endeavours help build a sense of worth – but without the foundation of self-worth, the edifice is constantly crumbling and requiring rebuilding…Hello again burnout and the puff of logic…

But there can also be something a lot less burny going on: when it comes down to it, choosing to do something that we believe makes a positive difference to others in some way makes us feel good, right?

Humans are social creatures: we need connection, we have some visceral need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Maybe it’s nothing more than basic survival instinct (don’t get me started on how the tribe reduces the risk of death by sabre-toothed tiger!); maybe it’s something more spiritual and idealistic; maybe it’s a bit of both.

Whatever the reason, doing something good boosts our sense of belonging, meaning and purpose, our sense of who we are and what we stand for, our sense of self. It's the opposite of selfless.

We’re bizarrely attached to the idea that good can only come out of suffering and sacrifice.

We are conditioned to believe that to be good, you must have no self. But what’s wrong with having a sense of self (see here for more on that)? Without a sense of self, we can’t give of ourselves.

What if we recognised that doing good shit can be rewarding and enjoyable?

What if we accepted that we can give of ourselves without sacrificing ourselves?

What if we saw that the world is brighter when we shine our light rather than hiding it?

I'm a Self-Belief Nurturer dedicated to making the world a brighter place by helping others to shine their true light in all its weird and wonderful glory!

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