Help yourself - Be selfless

Sarve janah sukhino bhavantu. May all men be happy. This was the prayer of Narayana Guru. Today’s mantra, however, is ‘Arre yaar, mera kahan?’ or ‘Where is my cut of the loot and how quickly can I get it?’

This is no secret. We, each one of us, are in the game of life for ourselves only. At the most, we may look out for those who we assume belong to us, like our kids, our families, and our friends, but that is how far it goes. In today’s self-centred world, it is only the degree to which we are selfish that differs.

Every day, we see and quite often participate in acts of selfishness. We clean our houses and dump the garbage on the streets. We strategise to get the most for the least by bargaining. We give way to road rage when someone delays us by so much as a minute.

Each time we do any of these acts, we hang out our priorities clearly for everyone to see. 

If we cared about our neighbours and our environment, would we be casual about the garbage lying on road sides? If we were to give a thought to the labour that went into farming or the efforts of the man who trundles it around on his cart to bring it fresh to our doorstep, would we try to bring the price of a kilo of tomatoes down by two rupees? 

Forgiving

If we were ready to forgive small mistakes that our fellow beings make, would we honk and holler when the car ahead of ours at the traffic signal hesitates for a split second after the light changes? And if we cared about our fellow beings, would we panic and rush to save ourselves in dangerous situations and cause stampedes which cause the deaths of vulnerable children, old people and women? 

The simple answer is: If we did care for people other than ourselves, we wouldn’t do any of these. But unfortunately, we are so involved in making sure that we get what we think we are owed that we don’t mind treading on others’ toes or sometimes, even heads.

It is well known that a healthy idea of self is required for good mental health. Knowing who we are and what we are capable of doing gives rise to self-confidence and self-esteem. Achievements, and praise and acknowledgements for those achievements, aid in this process. People with healthy self-esteem don’t just know their strengths and abilities; they also acknowledge and accept their weaknesses and faults without feeling inadequate or guilty. They are capable of self-compassion, that is the ability to not judge themselves too harshly or constantly, but to be able to forgive themselves for mistakes.

Being judgemental

On the other hand, many people have made it their life’s work to pass judgement on others without compassion. They are aware on some subconscious level that they are flawed too, but indulge in denial by overcompensation, with the result that they end up as narcissists, with very high but insecure self-esteem. These people feel that they are entitled to do what they please, and that others are around just to serve them and clean up after them. 

Previously, societal living posed as a check to the selfishness of these people since it involved a lot of adjustments and compromises in the day-to-day process of living. You needed to learn patience, flexibility, negotiation and compromise, as well as people skills such as tact, friendship, sensitivity, compassion and empathy to get along with others. However, the need for these skills has become blunted today because we live in both a virtual world as well as a real one simultaneously. You don’t have to learn patience to help you stand in a queue at the railway station or the grocery store: just go online, buy the stuff, and get it delivered. You don’t have to learn to be sensitive to others’ feelings to help you be tactful: just go on Facebook and unfriend, or break a relationship by SMS.

You don’t have to compromise on anything you want to do for the sake of friendship: even if a friend leaves, you can always find new ones online, whom you never have to see or behave decently towards. 

Effect on youth

These attitudes can most clearly be observed in the behaviour of today’s youth. They reject normal relationships which thrive on reciprocity, give-and-take equally, because they are not prepared to give anything of themselves. Today’s culture has become one of use-and-throw, in more ways than one, and being users, each person has to fend for himself. Thus, each person is isolated in society, alienated from his fellow human beings.

This era of isolation in the midst of intense connectedness, this time of loneliness in the midst of constant chatter, this age of instant gratification, has encouraged selfishness on an unprecedented scale. As society breaks down in its erstwhile local set-up and struggles to reform itself in a global avatar, previously respected values like altruism and compassion are taking a beating. 

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” asks the Bible. “Naah, he can take  care of himself. You, however, are King, you are entitled,” says today’s media.

There are some who even invoke Science to justify our selfishness, and yes, they have a point. When we seek to get to the root of this selfishness, we find that it may be hardwired into us physically, psychologically and culturally. 

Darwin’s theory of evolution says that the fittest shall survive, the fittest being not the physically fittest as in biggest, fastest and strongest, but the one which is best at reproducing itself. 

Therefore, in order to ensure your own survival, you have to edge the others out by not only doing better or doing more, but also by not allowing others to function effectively. In other words, you have to outdo others in cut-throat competition.

Richard Dawkins, an ethologist, evolutionary biologist, author and professor at Oxford, carries this idea further. In his book, The Selfish Gene, he argues that the competition to out-replicate and out-reproduce others exists at the level of our very genes.

Ironically, this very theory supports the argument for altruism. If we help others in times of their need, we ourselves may get help when we are in trouble, and in the end, our human race will have better chances of survival.

In the animal kingdom, we have many examples of philanthropy and unselfish behaviour. Dolphins have been known to save human beings from drowning and from sharks. Dogs and cats adopt orphaned animals like squirrels, ducks and even tigers. Lemurs will act as guards and warn others in their families of predators at risk to their own lives. 

Amongst humans, there are the outstanding examples of Mother Teresa, Oscar Schindler, Albert Schweitzer, Florence Nightingale and St Francis of Assissi, who helped others at considerable personal risk but with no immediate gain, personal or otherwise.

Even today, in the midst of selfishness and pettiness on a global scale, there are many philanthropists.
 USA’s business tycoons, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, and our own Azim Premji have given billions for better health and education for the poor and under-privileged. And let’s not forget NGOs, the non-government organisations which are working at the grassroots level for achieving this goal. The result of this altruism is a better world for all.

Therefore, by showing consideration to people we meet, and by not being selfish about our own needs, we are not only aiding others, but also helping ourselves lead a better, healthier and more peaceful life. Furthermore, we can influence future generations through our own actions and pave the way for a better world.

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