Can Selfishness and Compassion Live Together?

Can Selfishness and Compassion Live Together?
​Are we innately selfish, or do we usually have the best intentions at heart when thinking of others? I’ve been thinking a lot about selfishness and compassion lately.  I grew up being taught, and trying to live by the saying – treat others the way you want to be treated. On the surface, it is a noble thought. No one wants to be treated poorly. Do you want to be cut off in traffic, or be pushed aside by someone at the grocery store, be discriminated against, be abused, be yelled at..you get my point. Of course not! 

But think about it, going by that belief we are only treating others fairly because it is the way we would want to be treated. We, I, become the driving force of that thought and action. Does that mean we only treat others well because we believe it will come back to us? Then what happens when we are cut off in traffic or treated poorly? Does that mean we have the right to retaliate or to pass that hatred on to others? 

My husband and I were discussing something similar to this, and what he said has stuck with me for a while. He said, “Why not treat others as they would want to be treated.” That statement stopped me in tracks. Of course! That put others as the center focus of our intentions and actions. Is that where true compassion lives? I often wonder if we all are just following unwritten rules to be kind, and how many of us truly believe and feel being kind is a way of life. Do we have enough compassion inside us to want to be kind to others? 

What is compassion? American Heritage Dictionary defines compassion as, ”The ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual and to comprehend and share another individual’s emotional state.” 

We also live in a society that encourages the survival of the fittest. Not meaning most athletic (but sometimes could mean that), but one where we always need to be better in order to make more money, to buy a bigger house, a fancier car, or the latest technology. I don’t believe true compassion can thrive or survive in that type of society. How could it? We are always trying to outdo or beat the other person to be the best at whatever it is. What about the people who don’t have the same opportunities as I do, or as you do? I know I hold an absolute privilege being a white, middle-class, childless American (even though I am a woman). If I subscribed to the thinking of the survival of the fittest, then I would use every privilege I have to gain the upper hand, no matter the consequences. I have heard many people say they want to make it to a certain point in their life financially and then they will be able to give back. What about all of the chances to help others along the way? Does the desire to take care of ourselves first, and then give when we can make us selfish? I mean, you board an airplane and are instructed to put on your oxygen mask first and then to help others (or course this brings up the question about compassion fatigue and care for yourself, in order to be able to carry on compassion). Can compassion and empathy live in that kind of environment? I don’t know. 

Why are you kind or compassionate towards others? Does that extend to every one and to non-human animals? I would love to hear your thoughts! This is something I am going to continue to think about and explore. 

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