There’s a part of me that doesn’t care about you. It’s not here to solve your problems, lend you an ear, or serve you in any other way. It looks out for me and me alone.
Isn’t that a terrible thing? Actually, I don’t think so. In fact, I think acknowledging I have a “selfish” part – and, sometimes, doing what that part wants – is key to experiencing, and expressing, real compassion for people.
I Used To Be Such A Sweet, Sweet Thing
I used to act really nurturing and giving, all the time. Whenever someone had a request or a problem, I was the first to volunteer my time and energy. I can practically hear Alice Cooper now: “I opened doors for little old ladies,” and so on.
But I eventually had a couple of disturbing realizations. The first was that I expected praise for service I did, and felt upset when I didn’t get it. Why would I care about receiving praise, I wondered, if I genuinely liked helping others?
Second, if someone – heaven forbid – criticized me in a way that suggested I was selfish, I got even angrier. I couldn’t help but ask: f I’m really such a 24-7 generous guy, why does it bother me when someone says I’m not?
Acting Caring Vs. Being Caring
Finally, it dawned on me that, at least sometimes, I wasn’t helping people because I enjoyed service. Instead, I was doing it because I wanted to show people I wasn’t self-centered. In other words, I did it because I didn’t want to experience the shame I felt when someone called me selfish.
I started wondering: what if, on some level, I actually am selfish? What would happen if I learned that there is, in fact, a part of me that thinks only of my wants? Would I explode, implode, or be annihilated in some other messy way? Probably not.
I noticed my body relaxed, and I sighed with relief, when I asked questions like these. It was as if, to put on a benevolent mask for the world, I had to tighten some part of my body, and use up energy keeping that part tense. Dropping the mask freed up that energy, and was a big relief.
I also saw that, the more relaxed I felt, the more I experienced real gratitude. Life, I found, is more fun when I’m not trying to appease someone or protect myself from criticism. From that genuinely grateful place, compassion for others comes more naturally.
In other words, interestingly enough, admitting there’s a part of me that doesn’t care actually releases and nourishes the part that does.
Everybody Is Everything
Why? I think about it this way: each person is like a prism – an object that breaks up a beam of light into the colors of the rainbow. The colors represent every human character trait: compassion, selfishness, love, anger, sadness, and so on.
Often, we decide we don’t like one of the colors – perhaps we’d rather not be blue (sad), red (angry), or something else. So, we cover up the prism to keep others from seeing that color. The trouble is that, when we block the prism, none of the colors can be seen – no part of us can be fully expressed in the world.
When I try to hide my “self-centered” part, it’s like I’m covering up my prism – “hiding my light under a bushel,” as the saying goes. The result is that I can’t really bring my generous part into the world either. If I want my compassion to fully show up, I need to let my selfishness make an appearance too.
Chris Edgar is the author of Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your Work, and a consultant and workshop leader. At his blog Development In Context ( www.devincontext.com ), Chris discusses common criticisms of personal growth and makes the case for a life lived consciously.