To call someone selfish is quite vague. There are several ways in which the word selfish can be defined. Depending on the context of the word, it can be considered derogatory or positive. Degrees of each kind of selfishness also vary widely from person to person, some people possessing several types of selfishness. In order to properly define selfishness, we must also speak of it’s opposing component selflessness.
Selfishness, most commonly is defined as a negative term meaning that one thinks too much of themselves, disregarding others at someone else’s expense. Many people use this term to condemn someone for only thinking of ones own happiness and incorporated in that is often a selfish person’s willingness to hurt someone else in order to boost themselves.
Selfishness, in the next most common context, refers to one taking time out from the dedication to other facets of ones life in order to focus on oneself. This type of selfishness is needed in every human. People need to take a vacation and divulge themselves in pastimes that are purely enjoyable to them. This is a person’s way of remaining sane in an overwhelming world. Though this act of selfishness may not seem productive, it really is, because once the focus from every day activities is given a rest, one is more apt to be able to function more sanely. Though these two definitions seem opposite because one is negative and the other positive, which are antonyms, they are quite similar. The distinction between the two is that selfishness becomes negative when one abandons consideration of another’s welfare in order to gain happiness for oneself.
It is quite necessary to examine the various degrees of selfishness by both definitions to understand the comparison I am attempting to make. Selfishness can often be quite essential to ones growth as a human being. If one is always looking out for other people, they are neglecting their duties to themselves.
I feel this goes along with the saying, “Every man for himself.” One should not pursue happiness, however, at the expense of another’s happiness, but one must look out for oneself and enjoy the niceties of life, because one should be loyal to oneself. However, if one is constantly helping others and abandoning all pleasures and concern for themselves, this is actually a form of selfishness as well as selflessness. Someone like Mother Theresa, who gave her life to helping others who are destitute, did this because it felt good, and it fulfilled her sense of selfishness. I believe that everyone has some type of quota for selfishness and selflessness. The two concepts are not identical but they can be similar acts that are separated by their intent and execution. They are not quite opposites as many people purport. When one acts out of selflessness, one does it because it feels good to them, and although the party whom one helped also benefits, so does the person acting out of selflessness, because they are also acting out of selfishness to feel good. This type of selfishness is obviously of the positive sort, because it also entails selflessness as well. Here the two go hand in hand and work together.
Very similar to the last case I presented, yet with a slight difference, is the case of someone doing something for someone else, seemingly out of selflessness. In this instance, one may perform the same act as in the previous case. To make sure I am clear, I give you the scenario where someone gives clothes to the poor. In the first case which I propose, one would give those clothes willingly for the good of another person, expecting nothing in return except for feeling good about themselves, which, as I proved before, is a combined act of selfishness and selflessness. Now in the new case, a different person performs the same act of giving clothes to the poor. The difference between the two cases lies in the person’s attitude. In the second case, the person who gives to the poor is doing so mainly so that he might be able to deduct that amount that he gave in clothes from his taxes. This person performed the same act, yet with a different interest in mind, and that is where the difference lies.
Often, many people do something for someone because it is also self serving. Although it may benefit another, it is also done because it benefits them as well. Someone who does this all the time could be considered selfish in the negative sense. I do not propose, however, that one help another at his own expense, but one should not help oneself at someone else’s expense either. To achieve the correct balance is a very fine line, but everyone must explore that line in order to find that harmony between selfishness and selflessness, and when that harmony is found, one will find the two working together.