Not Selfish = Other-Centered
I’ve been struggling with this one, and for a while I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Then, my brother said, “I think it’s easiest to recognize selfishness when it is someone else being selfish, but not when we ourselves are being selfish.” When I explained my writer’s block to Melissa, she basically said the same thing – word for word. So, there must be some truth to this. I don’t see it in me, but I definitely recognize it in others. When I am selfish, it is usually because I see my reasons, but not my responsibility, in the matter.
Melissa also pointed out that there is something unique in parenthood that seems to be directly projected against our selfishness. Parenting can be the climax of “me versus you” struggle because someone else’s very life is dependent upon our consideration of their wellbeing in almost every decision.
Hands down, my Mother was the most unselfish person I have ever known. And I think she was this way because she was surrounded by some very selfish people in her life. Her family of origin was not the kindest family in which to grow up. In God’s grace, she chose another way: unselfish. I am a product of God’s goodness to her – a goodness I do not take for granted.
My Mom and I did not argue a lot, but when we did, it could be intense. I remember a particular argument my Mother and I had when I was a teenager. I remember it as if it was yesterday: where we were standing, the look on her face, and the tone in her voice. She ended with, “Daly, you are being selfish, and I did not raise you to be this way.” It cut me to my core.
After spending much of the argument trying to prove my point and validate my reasoning to her, I was stricken speechless. I didn’t agree with her. But even my teenage brain knew that her accusation had to have some validity because selfishness was THE cardinal sin in our house. I retreated to my room and cried.
From my earliest memories of fighting with my younger brother, my Mom’s rebuke wasn’t just about our yelling, screaming, and elementary fighting tactics. In fact, I barely remember her addressing those “surface” actions. What I remember is her bending down, looking us both straight in the eyes and saying, “You two have to learn to be there for each other. One day, I will not be here, and you will need each other. You’ve got to learn to love one another.”
(Before you start to think that this interaction mimicked the cover of a book of nursery rhymes – children in well-pressed, smocked outfits and a mother draped in a white, eyelet-trimmed dress - let me just set the record straight: My Mom was not sing-songy or prone to clichés. That was not her style. My brother and I were usually unmatched and barefoot, and my Mom wore “mom jeans” before “mom jeans” were a “thing”. No, she was speaking to us as if our lives depended on it, with the urgency that I now realize it deserves. And that is probably why I remember these interactions so clearly.)
Selfishness is an issue of perspective. It isn’t about choosing my way or your way, per se. It’s about how I see you and me. It is about how I choose what I choose.
The very word “Self-ish-ness” tells on itself:
Self – the part of a person that makes you who you are.
Ish – having the qualities or characteristics of.
Ness – denoting a state or condition.
Selfishness shows up in my actions and speech when they come from “a condition of possessing the qualities and characteristics of myself.”
It could be said, then, that the opposite of selfishness is “a condition of possessing the qualities and characteristics of another”.
Now that I am an adult, and I’ve had to face my own selfish heart more than a few times, I’ve had time to reflect on my Mother’s sharp words to me in our previous argument. What did she mean when she said I was being selfish? I’ve come to the conclusion that what she was trying to show me was that my choices were full of me and not from a stance of considering someone else. I had not even thought of her or my family, or anyone for that matter. I was just making decisions based on me.
More generally, I’ve learned that selfishness isn’t just actions that are overtly unkind against another person. It is simply a condition of being void of anyone else but yourself. It's a matter of whether we see someone else - anyone else - other than ourselves.
Oddly enough, functioning in selfishness creates a lonely existence. If our lives are full of only ourselves, then our world becomes small…very small. For me, that would only be 5’4”…and that’s pretty small comparatively. Our lives are enlarged when we do not live only for ourselves. I think this is the point my Mother was trying to get my brother and I to understand: selfishness leads to loneliness; and that's the last thing my Mother wanted for any of her children. A life lived with other people in mind is a full, supported, flourishing life to live, and totally worth the personal cost.
Yes, unselfish living requires that we do some hard stuff: We may have to slow down and think from other people’s perspective (AKA - compassion). Perhaps we may have to do without what we would like to have for ourselves (AKA - sharing). Maybe we would have to wait longer than we would like (AKA - patience). It means we have to make room in our heads, hearts, and lives for other people - honoring who they are as human beings, as well as what they mean to our lives.
Growth is never accomplished in comfort and ease. It requires that we shed the confines that are too small to sustain us, and that we push through some rocky terrain. It happens slowly, but surely, or we fail to thrive. Likewise, growing in Christlikeness requires hard things, difficult decisions, and painful shedding of old patterns of living. But we are not left to our own strength to accomplish this…God is indeed gracious, and through His power, “has given us everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).
It is impossible to love as Christ has asked of us if we are full of ourselves, because the love of Christ is others-centered. It not only considers others in its decisions and actions, but it does even more than that. It prefers another. It chooses the actions that are best suited for another’s wellbeing. After all, Jesus “came down from heaven” to do the Father’s will (John 6:41). Even being equal with God in His nature, He did not consider that His equality to God was something that He should strive to hold onto for His own advantage (Phil. 2:6). Instead, He became less, so that we could become more.
(Selah. For real. Read that last sentence again. Then, really think about it. I could cry just thinking about the fact that so great a God would ever give so much for something so insignificant as myself. And yet, that's exactly what happened!)
Christ, although worthy within Himself to be fully loved and perfect without another, still engaged in unselfish actions on our behalf. We were on His mind and in His heart when He came, lived, died, and rose again…and even now, while He prepares a place for us in Heaven, awaiting our rescue. And this is all because love is not selfish, it is other – centered.
Praise the Lord that His love has been us-centered. This is the gospel. This is indeed good news for ALL people. This is the story of how our souls have been saved from the disaster we deserved. And the story begins and ends in the Father's unselfish love.
Each day, we can choose to proliferate this redemptive story by choosing to love unselfishly, just as my Mother did. Our other-centered perspective and our actions stemming from true love will continually preach that there is more in this life than ourselves. Just as my Mother taught my brother and I that loving each other is how we are going to make it in this world, Jesus taught the same to his followers before He returned to His Father:
I am going away...As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Now remain in my
love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love...My command is this: Love
each other as I have loved you...This is my command: Love each other."
Love. Each. Other.
This is the language in which we proclaim the Gospel: Other-Centered Love.
ARTWORK BY: Lauren Garner of Willow & Stone Designs.
To see more of her beautifully creative artwork, check her out on Instagram @willowandstonedesigns .