I woke up this morning in a world that seemed somehow changed. After months of hourly news developments related to Donald Trump’s latest outrage, followed by the “worst mass shooting in American history,” (which may or may not have been an act of terrorism), even as we approached one year since a white supremacist murdered nine blacks in a historic Charleston church, we now face a British vote to exit the European Union. As my mind struggles to make sense of it all, I recall a common phenomenon I have noticed among parents: noble selfishness.
An individual’s efforts to advance their own welfare are labeled, quite appropriately, as acts of selfishness, but a parent’s efforts to advance the welfare of their children are often seen as acts of love. It is rare when a parent’s advocacy for their children is seen as a fault.
Coincidentally, we have also seen one of those rare moments in recent weeks, as the father of a young rapist was dragged through hell on the internet for defending his son and brushing aside the profound effect his son’s actions had on another human being. Even so, the selfishness of his words would have been completely overlooked if the tears of his distraught victim had not spread around the nation before his unfortunate letter did. Having absorbed her pain before we heard his compassion for his son, we reacted quite differently than the lenient judge who decided the case.
While that case may be extreme, it is hardly an isolated phenomenon. Parents are usually given great leeway in advancing the interests of their children, even when other children are indirectly—or even directly—harmed as a result. Schools and teachers are quite familiar with this kind of noble selfishness as they deal with the righteous indignation of a parent whose child did not receive every benefit and every accolade the school could provide.
For example, we praise parents who fight to make schools provide special education resources to their children and turn a blind eye to the fact that spending money and staff time on their children will inevitably deprive other children of benefiting from those limited resources. In the process we turn school administrators into villains who do not want to follow the law and ignore the fact that most of the time they are trying to stretch insufficient resources to satisfy the needs of all the students in their care, and that none of the students receives everything they need or deserve. (The insufficient resources are a symptom of another kind of noble selfishness, which I may get to later.)
We praise parents like this not only because we cannot see the difficult behind-the-scenes budget decisions, but also because we do not see the true nature of the self. We think of the self as ending at the boundaries of our bodies. We do not notice that the idea of self is greater than the physical. The idea of self extends outward, beyond our bodies, beyond our “small self” to encompass a “larger self” that includes our children, our family, our community, our people, our nation and our religion. The idea of self is much greater than the physical reality.
Because we do not see the real boundaries of the self, we sometimes confuse selfishness with selflessness, as we do when we fail to see the inherent selfishness involved in fighting to direct limited resources to our own children at the expense of others. We see people who sacrifice to advance the interests of their children, their family, their community, their nation or their religion and we rarely think “How selfish are they!” Instead, we see them either as heroes or as racists, bigots or zealots. We fail to see that they are simply giving in to one of the most basic of human impulses: putting our own wants before all else.
Part of the problem is that selflessness and selfishness can be genuinely difficult to separate. It is not usually easy to judge between the two. Did a soldier who gave his life in a war do it to defend his country from harm or to advance its selfish interests? Was it the highest act of selflessness or the highest act of selfishness? It can be hard to say and different people will come to vastly different conclusions.
We are all subject to the push and pull of selfishness and selflessness. They are written into our very being. Mormons might say they are written into our very soul.
Mormons have a peculiar way of viewing the soul: as the combination of the spirit and the body, the melding of divine nature with its opposite. The Book of Mormon says that “Natural man is an enemy to God and has been since the beginning,” but elsewhere Mormons learn that our spirits are the literal offspring of God.
The Mormon goal is to completely shed the evil tendencies of the “natural man” and fully adopt the entirety of God’s nature. Our hope is for the divine nature of our spirits to fully overtake the selfish nature of our physical selves. Additionally, after death, the imperfect and corrupt physical self will be transformed into a physical self that is perfect and incorrupt. In Mormon teaching, the contradiction between good and evil, light and darkness, truth and error can be fully resolved after death in the direction of goodness, light and truth.
This is accomplished through the healing essence of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (“grace”), in combination with our own deliberate choices (“works”). If the ideas of grace and works seem to contradict each other it should not surprise us. The push and pull of opposing ideas lies at the very heart of Mormonism. It permeates every layer of the religion. No Mormon is completely free of it. I doesn’t matter how loose their association with the church may be or what brand of Mormonism they follow.
This is not the only way of resolving the conflict between selflessness and selfishness, of course. Every religion and every philosophy offers good ways of doing so. Every group of people has at least one positive way of accomplishing this, but every group has at least one negative way, as well. The seemingly universal way of resolving them is the melding of the two into the phenomenon I have called noble selfishness.
Noble selfishness allows us to tell ourselves we are selfless even as we act selfishly. We sacrifice our small self for the benefit of our larger self, whether that larger self is our children, our family, our community, our nation, our race or our religion. Noble selfishness allows us to give full expression to our selfishness while believing we are doing the opposite.
If the 21st century has seen a new outbreak of noble selfishness and the phenomenon threatens to overtake the globe and overturn decades of progress towards selflessness, then I think there is one person to blame. The century began with the largest act of noble selfishness the world may have ever seen: the murder of thousands of innocent people by a fairly small group of Muslims, who called themselves martyrs fighting for the cause of their religion and their people. Killing others to advance your own interests is the most selfish of acts, yet they claimed it was the highest act of selflessness: giving your life in the defense of others.
It was Osama bin Laden who laid out the intellectual framework for this belief, allowing the terrorist “martyrs” to tell themselves they were defending their people, in spite of the fact that Muslims as a people were not under attack by the West, but were, instead, in the middle of a miraculous resurgence as their numbers, wealth and power greatly increased, with no end in sight to their global elevation. Osama bin Laden almost single-handedly set the tone for the entire era and is therefore paradoxically responsible for the growth in white supremacism and Islamophobia.
This does not mean that I celebrate his death (or more accurately his execution, since Barack Obama’s plan seems to have been “kill or capture” rather than “capture or kill”). Killing bin Laden did not kill his ideas. Instead, it freed them from association with a limited, mortal human being who was subject to all the realities of our physical existence, and allowed them to grow larger and take on an even more mythical appearance. The death of Osama bin Laden is directly tied to the creation and growth of the Islamic State, or Daesh, if you prefer, since it also freed the most extreme elements of his movement from his “moderating” influence.
Osama bin Laden didn’t just inspire terrorists, however. Just as we judge the cleanliness of any part of our homes by how it compares to the dirtiest part, we judge the selfishness of an ideology by how it compares to the most selfish belief system. Osama bin Laden ushered in an era when the noble selfishness of all kinds of ideologies would be overlooked simply because, in comparison, they seem harmless.
It is no coincidence that the era of God, Family and Country in the United States followed their experience with another preacher of noble selfishness: Adolph Hitler. He preached sacrifice in advancing the interests of the German nation, sacrifice of the small self in service to the larger self. Following the unimaginable horrors of the Nazi government, Americans selfish pursuit of the interests of their own religion, their own family and their own country over the interests of all others seemed rather tame and harmless to many people around the world. In that era, Soviet communism also seemed to be a fairly innocent expression of noble selfishness. At the time, everyone remembered something far, far worse.
Donald Trump is an expression of noble selfishness, but so is Bernie Sanders. The righteous indignation of his followers is not exactly selfless. In fact, all populism seems to contain a prominent degree of noble selfishness. What we are seeing in the growth of populist movements on the left and right is nothing less than the growth of selfishness, cloaked in the guise of righteousness. We don’t notice it because we are constantly reminded of examples that are far, far worse. The presence of the Islamic State/Daesh makes everything else seem tame.
As I said before, it can be difficult to judge whether an act is selfless or selfish. For example, was my description of Mormon beliefs in this blog post an attempt to advance my religion at the expense of others, or was it an attempt to defend a religion that is popularly mocked in story and song? It is difficult to say. Can even I say which one it is? Can I truly know whether selfishness or selflessness motivated me? Was it only one of the two, or was it both? If both, then which was greater?
I had said that I might get around to articulating how the limited resources in the education system are an example of noble selfishness, but I think that is probably unnecessary. I think we all instinctively understand. We are all the same, after all. We live our lives in a constant effort to balance selfishness and selflessness. I know we will find a better balance than we now have. That is our nature. It is my hope and my prayer that this will be sooner rather than later.