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Published: Thu Jul 1 2010
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
On Selfishness

Everything has either a price or a dignity. —Kant

I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes. I had one thousand and sixty. —Imelda Marcos

Roger Hargreaves’s storybook character Little Miss Selfish is green, shaped like a beehive. She wears yellow heels, blue gardening gloves, and a bright yellow hat tied with a blue and red ribbon. Her mouth is turned down in a snotty frown. Little Miss Selfish doesn’t share. The only thing she ever thinks about is herself.

In the French version, she’s a Mrs.–Madame Moi-Je. A double thick me/I.

Always first in line for brunch, she helps herself to the buffet, sits down at the family table, polishes off her bacon and waffles, and leaves before anyone else is served. A blood sugar dive could be the instigator. In that case, she’d do anything to get her hands on a piece of bread, even pluck a half-eaten roll off someone’s plate. The blood demands sustenance, beats against the brain till it secures quick satisfaction. Yes, there are plenty of medical excuses for bad behavior. During the trial for the murder of Harvey Milk, a psychiatrist testified that Dan White’s diet of junk food exacerbated his depression and mood swings. Diminished capacity or, as it came to be known, The Twinkie Defense.

Unfortunately, it’s not just hunger that makes Miss Selfish butt in line. She’s always first, hungry or not. Nothing like a crowd waiting to board a plane or vaporetto or ski-lift to stimulate her sense of entitlement. Her behavior at a 50% off sale is atrocious, all elbows, tossing hangers and clothes everywhere. Furthermore, the correct way to play tennis is her way. The right call is hers. Her friends would be wise to follow her stage directions; otherwise they will make a bad play. Miss Selfish rules, without persuasion or sensitivity.

Two girls lollygag at the edge of a large pond. It’s a hot, dusty evening and they are merely passing time, vaguely aware of each other. Coincidentally, they decide to throw a rock at exactly the same moment: kerplunk/kerplunk. The ripples spread in broad half-circles intersecting on their way to the center of the lake. Some die out; others bounce back, reverse direction towards the shore, where they appear as light wavelets, shooshing noises tickling the sand. The girls watch, fascinated. Abruptly one child snaps into action, combing the shore, scuttling about like a gull searching for meat. In fifteen minutes flat she has scooped up all the best rocks and filled her pockets. Can we share? She will not share. Each rock plops into the water with a satisfying boink or, if she’s lucky, skims across the surface like a dragonfly before sinking unceremoniously. The other child appears deflated, arms at her side. Her adversary grows large and furious in her movements, a giant weed whacker, all spinning arms and splashing. She can feel the spray on her face, like spit, and steps away. She’ll find something else to do.

The word selfish was coined by Presbyterians in the seventeenth century, according to Hacket’s Life of Archbishop Williams. It’s translated egoiste in French, itsekkäiden in Finnish, and Önérdekű in Hungarian.

Ego. Itself. One.

British biological theorist Richard Dawkins adopted the word for his gene-centered book on evolution, titled The Selfish Gene. Dawkins claims that genes act as if they are self-centered and the purpose of evolution is the survival of the information in the genes of the individual. Over a long period of time, the genes passed on from generation to generation are ones serving their implicit self-interest (to continue being replicated). Dawkins’ proponents argue that the gene, as unit of selection, usefully completes and extends Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, before basic genetics was understood.

On a lighter note, Ambrose Bierce defined selfish in his Devil’s Dictionary as “devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.” Why do we laugh at this? Because we recognize immediately that it’s true, a formula with selfishness on both sides of the equal sign. The laugh itself implicates us in selfishness; it is an involuntary and automatic admission.

Imagine a pristine and very expensive Mexican beach resort called “A,” where every stray wrapper is scooped up instantly and a hand outstretched is filled with a glass of minted ice tea. The clientele is privileged, the sand is raked nightly, and the ocean glistens as if it too were mintily iced. Twenty feet away from the bright umbrellas and chaises a long thick rope runs from water to street, confining local vendors to their portion of the beach, an area known as “B” though legally it is all considered public beach. Crowded and hot, the vendors shift from one scalded foot to the other. Trinkets and shawls, sombreros and jugs. Striped, tightly-woven table runners and bright parasols.

No one from A crosses over to B. No exchange of coin, greeting, or glance. From A’s point of view, B doesn’t exist. One of the privileged sun-worshippers speaks outside her privilege to say that most privileged people she knows are what we might easily call selfish. They prefer not to associate with those outside their circle. They have security systems, privacy issues, bold borders around their privilege. The rich are different than you and me. Indeed.

But in fact, this cordoning off, this box-making, is not only the habit of privilege.

A two-year-old will listen for language that suits her needs. For example, mother insists with the power words “have to.” You have to go to bed now. You have to wear shoes outside. Mother’s hands clutch little Luci’s arm, steer her upstairs, guide her foot into the velcroed sneaker. The child feels her little body positioned according to mother’s wishes. Not forced exactly, but expertly manipulated. Interesting. She tries the expression herself. She bets on “have to” because she knows the words have muscle. I have to drink honey in my milk. I have to eat a chocolate cupcake. I have to wear both shirts. Gentle, civilized pleases, may Is, shares float everywhere_,_ but they do not strike Luci as utile, not yet. Bit by bit, brick by brick, she is fencing off her portion of the beach. Her beach.

A selfish instinct has its root in our earliest ancestors, and every child passes through a selfish stage. Left to her own devices, Luci might steal a turkey sandwich from her sister, forage through the pantry and eat nothing but Oreos and Cheez-Its. God forbid, she would pee wherever she felt like it, or even shove open the door and rush into the dangerous street. Luckily, Luci has a refining influence in Bonnie, Mother of Head-Strong Toddlers. Though there is no instruction book on how to live socially, Bonnie has experience which she naturally imparts. If Luci grabs her sister’s Elmo doll or worse, snatches a cracker off a stranger’s plate, her mother will set her straight with another little lecture about asking politely, sharing, and showing consideration for others. Eventually Luci will get it and thus, with a little less selfishness, her socialization begins. Chances are, she’ll never thank her mother. As Freud said, we never really forgive the person who civilizes us.

If, however, her selfishness persists beyond childhood, it will restrict her ability to empathize. She’ll see less of the world, deny the value of other points of view and, at the very extreme, risk becoming morally stunted, or even criminal. At the very least, a kind of self-petrifaction might set in.

For example, my notion of mountainous beauty was formed by two months in Switzerland’s Hasliberg with its Rosenlauer glacier, Reichenbach falls, and 14K peaks. It took days to hike the Jungfrau, to even draw close, the Nordwand sheer and unassailable without advanced equipment and experience. On cloudy days, the glacier glowed blue with grayish parallelograms that gave the ice a hound’s-tooth appearance. Wind off the backside of the mountains caught snow and tossed it sideways, a horse tail. Cloud layer followed and I knew to expect the infamous Föhn—balmy wind rushing down the valley, turning snow into aquamarine meltwater, driving a few mentally unstable farmers to murder and prison.

Layer this image over the aged Shenandoahs, rolling gently upwards from green-blanketed valleys in North Central Virginia. Though beautiful to others, I cannot abide their weak lines and soft silhouettes. They suggest a flaccid resistance to weather, a lack of character. I kick a bit of crumbled rock to demonstrate. Clay. Powder. The highest peak is a knob, just over 4000 feet. Hardly a mountain at all.

A selfish person enters a scene, any scene, with a constrained, pre-formed, self-centered focus.

The film Being John Malkovich illustrated an extreme version of this. Craig Schwartz, a forlorn filing clerk at LesterCorp discovers a strange portal behind a filing cabinet. When he enters, he slips down a long chute and suddenly finds himself inside the mind of the actor John Malkovich, experiencing everything that John sees, touches, and hears. Later, Malkovich himself enters the portal and also finds himself in the head of actor John Malkovich, a world where everyone looks like him and can only say “Malkovich.” The setting is an elegant restaurant. There are white tablecloths and a large set of windows overlooking a harbor. Nearly every table is occupied, crowded with diners—young and old, stooped or spry, decked out or dressed casually—all of them bearing John Malkovich faces. It’s a jarring sight to anyone who is not John Malkovich. Is it comforting to John? Nightmarish? Fifteen minutes later he is tossed out of his brain into a ditch somewhere near the New Jersey Turnpike.

Our species has evolved far beyond purely instinctual behavior, the only animal blessed (or cursed) with radical self-awareness. We invented the concept of selfishness and have the ability to choose between two options: experience the world as an extension of ourselves, or stand back and try to imagine it from another person’s point of view. In a real restaurant, no one wears John Malkovich masks to suit the egotistical vision of John Malkovich. But if a self-centered person walked in she might see only what she was in the mood to see: a pleasing nose or lip or Brooks Brothers suit, a plate of oily greens with pignoli and golden raisins**.** Suppose a waiter steps forward with a single red rose. He’s just doing his job with that extra special customer service touch, but she’s thinking, What can he possibly want? Does he not know I detest red roses?

As for the rose, it’s only selfish if it desires every other flower in the world to be a rose. (Oscar Wilde)

In my favorite restaurant there’s a heavyset man who regularly dines at a window seat, ordering without fail a huge plate of French fries. He’s a brilliant veterinary bone surgeon, but the eyes passes over him with little consideration. He’s fat and see how little he attends to his “condition.” French fries! Several months later, my basset hound tumbles down the kitchen stairs and I’m forced to bring the suffering animal to this very surgeon. I walk into the examining room, doubtful the man will have much to offer.

Until he begins to explain while stroking the dog’s tri-colored fur the process of repairing a shoulder that has been yanked from its socket. He points to an indistinct area on the X-ray, circling one finger over the afflicted joint, speaking in a crisp yet gentle instructional tone. I value intelligence and the doctor’s is considerable. He has calmed the animal with his touch. In my mind, his pounds of flesh melt away until all I can see is the hound’s easy up and down breathing under the surgeon’s hand. His mild demeanor acts like affection on my anxiety too and I fall into a state of hypnotic relaxation.

It takes terrific force to pry open the window in a selfish person’s house. A motorcycle accident, anaphylactic shock after eating a strawberry, the fall of a beloved animal down a flight of very slippery stairs.


Un– is our most prolific of English prefixes. Ne, ny, nay, not. At its very core, a negation of everything that follows: untruth, undeniable, unheard-of. If a cardinal sin is selfishness, the opposite is _un_selfishness. Not selfish, not thinking first and foremost of one’s self.

In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis complained, “If you ask twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, ‘unselfishness,’ But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, ‘love.’ You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive.” Doing good things for others is not enough; you must go without them yourself. Indeed, self-denial is a zenith, the highest virtue. Lewis blamed Stoicism, which teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming anger, fear, jealousy, lust, and other damaging states of mind. The sage—a person who has attained moral and intellectual perfection—suppresses these emotions. As Marcus Aurelius, the first Stoic emperor of Rome, advised in his Meditations, “Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break, but which stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.” Deny yourself and you will live a good life. Death is a relief because it represents the end of desire and its attendant unhappiness.

It’s not clear if he intended his writings to be published, but the diary, which Aurelius also called To Himself, provides an interesting snapshot of a would-be Stoic sage at work. In it, he reminds himself of Stoic teachings, reproaching when he has fallen short: “The wise man sees in the misfortune of others what he should avoid.” How close did Aurelius come to living a good life? A social reformer who helped the poor, slaves, and convicted criminals, he also was a fierce persecutor of early Christians. Press against one vein, another will inflate. He was, after all, emperor of Rome, responsible for safeguarding its borders.

The word ‘altruism’ was popularized in 1830 by French philosopher Auguste Comte, and often presented as an alternative to ‘unselfishness.’ Comte borrowed it from a legal phrase, l’autrui, or in full, le bien, le droit d’autrui. For the good, the right of others. A truism. All truisms, the infinite number of other beings who pace the sidewalk after a rainy day, eat cereal from the box, who happen upon a dead cat and spend the morning weeping. At the very least we must know they are there, significant for their existence, not for what they can or cannot do for us. The truly altruistic act out of a selfless concern for others. They get close, very close, close enough to see skin pores and saliva. They open all their senses like a barn door and let the information flow in. They forget their own skin and ticking pulse, anticipate when the other’s need arises and give at the right moment.

Love even, though it need not be as extraordinary as Mother Teresa’s, who said, “What we need is to love without getting tired.” Teresa demonstrated her compassion by touching, wrapping her arms around castaways—lepers, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS patients—bathing people who were about to die. She whispered in their ears, soothed with songs, took the time to warm the extended hands of everyone she met. With Vatican permission, she began a small order in Calcutta with only 13 members. At the time of her death in 1997, her Missionaries of Charity included 4000 nuns, operating 610 missions in 123 countries, including clinics, hospices, soup kitchens, counseling programs, orphanages, and schools. She only appeared in public to guide her programs. Otherwise, she avoided the limelight. She wanted people to think of Jesus, not Teresa. In daily Mass, if you didn’t know where she was sitting, you wouldn’t realize she was there.

Some found her devotion to the poor difficult to believe. Did she wash her hands compulsively, calling for hot water from the kitchen when her patients made do with cold? Did she ask for any other luxuries, suppress her impatience or silence a garrulous sister so she could get on with her tasks? I can imagine in Teresa’s Calcutta office a bookshelf that conceals a small chamber furnished with cot, blankets, pillow. She nods to her sisters on the way in, and they know to keep visitors away for an hour, maybe more. One shove and the bookshelf swings open. She slips inside, hurriedly dispensing with her prayers, removing her shoes and sinking down. She draws knees to her chest, sighs like a dog, and grabs herself a selfish nap.

Others took a dim view of both her philosophy and practice. Why didn’t she work towards eliminating poverty, the source of so much suffering? The Lancet criticized the quality of care offered in her clinics: the reuse of hypodermic needles, poor living conditions, and haphazard medical diagnosis. In the months before her death, Teresa broke her collar bone, contracted malaria, and had open-heart surgery. When she fell ill, she made the controversial decision to be treated at a well-equipped hospital in California instead of one of her own clinics. This so concerned the Archbishop of Calcutta that on her first hospitalization he ordered a priest to perform an exorcism because he thought she was under attack by the devil.

Faced with an extreme model of altruism, we sanctify or turn skeptic. Following her death, the Catholic Church moved towards canonization. Journalist Christopher Hitchens was asked to testify against her in 2002, a role he would later describe as being akin to “representing the Evil One, as it were, pro bono.”

The mesolimbic pathway is a primitive area of the brain that, under MRI scans, usually lights up in response to food and sex. Neuroscientists at NIH and LABS D’Or Hospital Network decided to observe this pathway during a different kind of behavior and conducted studies with normal, healthy volunteers who placed the interests of others before their own by making charitable donations of time and money. The scientists discovered that altruistic giving ignites the very same area in the brain. They published their research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in October, 2006, noting that another brain circuit was selectively activated during the experiment: the subgenual cortex/septal region, where bonding and social attachment occur. Altruism, they suggested, is not just a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but is basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable. It’s comforting to know that Teresa might have experienced a physical bonus for her enormous kindness and sacrifice. The rest of us might also have something to look forward to if only we stopped thinking only of ourselves.

And how likely is that? Alas, the dinner-time admonishments over half-eaten succotash have disappeared and starving children in India still starve. Today, no one wants a son or daughter with low self-esteem so a false glow settles over the hair of kindergartners. Sean Penn poses in a truck bed, tossing out rice for the hungry in Haiti, and fans everywhere forgive him the vanity of his vicious temper. We commit small acts of selfishness every day: scraps of toilet paper dropped on the restroom floor, stolen Splenda packets or reams of office paper, divots on the golf course left to dry in the sun. Side-zooming at tollbooths, texting in movie theaters, “saving” a seat with our coats and purses. But spear the largest pork chop off a platter while everyone is watching? That would be uncivilized.

I can’t remember if Little Miss Selfish ever came around and the book is long out of print. In my mind she remains selfish to the end, pushing shoppers out of her way, opening other people’s birthday presents. Her reward and penance are the same: eternal life in a two-dimensional, bell-shaped body, glowing golf-course green. No matter the fancy shoes and sunhat. Useless the handbag with lots of room for cash. She lives to frighten children, loathed, ridiculed.


One day a woman wakes up in the middle of her life. Her mother has died, daughter suffered a life-threatening illness, husband finally sober after a long period of abuse. Shaken, she turns in a slow wide arc, settling uncomfortably on four decades of self-centered behavior. She feels an appropriate shame and regret.

Good, she thinks (remembering Weil), is the only real surprise.

She begins to walk daily, past her neighborhood, downtown, along the river and beyond. It’s exploration, a kind of reconnaissance. Sometimes she sweeps the alleys behind houses, hoping to get a glimpse of who lives there. Corner lot grocers and bartenders are of some help. A parking lot attendant seems to know everyone. A small thing, she creates beautiful ribboned boxes filled with green tissue paper and gifts—pistachios and coffee, racetrack tickets and cologne, tobacco and licorice, a brand new sports watch or hairclips—which she leaves on doorsteps throughout the city. On dismal mornings the old men, pissed-off mothers, painfully shy or foul-mouthed children open their doors to an unexpected lift, each box carefully tailored to their desires. They scan the sidewalks up and down, mystified.

Back home, a fire sparks in her brain, and for a while she feels illicitly high. What is this drug, and why isn’t everyone doing it?

Sarah Gorham is the author, most recently, of Alpine Apprentice: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press, 2017), which made the short list for the PEN/Diamonstein Award in the Essay. She is also the author of four poetry collections, including Bad Daughter (Four Way Books, 2011), The Cure (Four Way Books, 2003), The Tension Zone (Four Way Books, 1996, second edition 1998), and Don’t Go Back to Sleep (Galileo Press, 1989). Her essays and poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, AGNI, Creative Nonfiction, The Southern Review, The American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry 2006, and elsewhere.  A recipient of grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and three state arts councils, she is co-founder and editor- in-chief of Sarabande Books.  She resides in Prospect, Kentucky. (updated 4/2022)

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