I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the word selfish, and the concept of selfishness in general. I recently wrote about suicide, and in that process remembered how often the word selfish has been applied to people who have lost their battle with the pain and suffering of life. I want to look at that word a bit more closely, especially in that context.
This post does talk a bit about suicide, so if this is a trigger for you, please do not read any further.
I just spent a few minutes trying to figure out why this matters so much to me, and I think I finally figured it out: if we can have compassion instead of judgment for those who commit suicide, maybe we can back that up a bit, and have compassion for those people before it is too late. Maybe our compassion can make the difference.
Maybe we can look at people suffering from loneliness, suffering from depression, suffering from emotional pain and trauma…just suffering …maybe we can look at them and realize that we need to understand them and help them, instead of judging them.
On Being Selfish
According to Merriam-Webster online “selfish” is defined as:
1: concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others
2: arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others
- A selfish act
3: being an actively replicating repetitive sequence of nucleic acid that serves no known function
- selfish DNA
; also : being genetic material solely concerned with its own replication
- selfish genes
I have to admit a certain affinity for the 3rd definition – DNA and genes are cool.
I am having feelings about the word selfish, though, especially in the context of a discussion about suicide – feelings I didn’t even know I had until I started thinking about it so much. I kinda hate that word, as it turns out.
Sooo, Is Selfish GOOD, Or BAD?
We applaud a selfless act, and demonize being selfish, but what are we actually saying when we do that? Because I don’t know about you, but I have seen hundreds of memes on social media about self care and putting yourself first and following your own path no matter WHAT and living your dreams and not letting anyone else tell you how to live or what to do, and that how someone reacts to your choices is NOT your business, etc, etc, etc.
Taking one’s own life may very well meet a very specific definition of the word selfish, in that it may be an act “concerned… exclusively with oneself… without regard for others”. Even if it IS selfish, which I will argue below that it is not…is that REALLY the thing on which we want to focus after losing someone that we love – that they were too busy thinking only of themselves to think of OUR feelings?
Regard For Others Can Cost TOO Much
Part of the definition of the word selfish requires that it be “without regard for others”. I have walked my time on earth with entirely too much regard for others. This is NOT a good thing, for lots of reasons. One of them being that I did NOT do this with intention or in a selfless way.
My obsession with not doing anything that might cause someone else discomfort or annoyance was not a healthy thing for me. Plus, it was oddly egotistical – walking around the world thinking everyone else’s well being rested in my hands. Most people just don’t care enough about my choices to be hurt by them.
However, if they had – would my regard for how THEY feel really be more important than doing the thing that made ME happy? Is there a grey area? If my actions HURT them in some real and concrete way, solely for the purpose of my own pleasure…is there a context in which that is still “OK”? I realize this is one of those conversations best had while in college and smoking pot…but I think it is worth considering here, as well.
And what if someone does not believe – not for ONE moment – that their actions impact anyone else at all? When my brother killed himself he had no one in his life that he believed cared about him. He probably didn’t think his family would even find out about it. He had no friends – hell, in his mind, his girlfriend had betrayed him and she was the only person he had left.
As far as he was concerned, his death would impact nobody but himself. So…is that still an act we wish to deem selfish?
What Were They Thinking?
Let’s discard that more tedious “letter of the law” definition of selfish and consider what my father meant when he said that my brother Joe’s suicide was selfish. He meant that Joe did not consider my father’s potential pain as more important or meaningful than the pain Joe was experiencing and trying to escape. It’s that simple – his pain mattered more than Joe’s did, bottom line.
Nobody who is considering ending their own life is feeling good about things. So when the people left behind call them selfish, we are saying that the person in so much pain that life is unbearable should have considered OUR potential pain as more important than their own. We would like them to have the mental wherewithal that would allow them to make a choice in consideration of other people, when they are so overwrought that they are considering ENDING their own existence.
Consider the possibility that they DID consider other people. Maybe some of their pain comes from feeling like they just don’t matter to anyone else. They may believe, completely, that nobody cares. If nobody cares, then there is no potential pain for anyone else.
Even further down the rabbit hole, perhaps they think that their death will be a good thing for those who love them. Maybe they consider themselves a burden, too high a cost to the people who have to deal with them or care for them. In this context, in the mind of the suicidal person, their suicide may be an act of charity – a release from the responsibility and burden of taking care of them.
Maybe they just cannot believe that there will ever be anything OTHER than the pain they are feeling in that moment, and nothing else even enters their mind.
In other words, unless they have specifically told us, we don’t know WHAT they were thinking…and their thinking is the basis of whether their act is a selfish one. In their mind, it may be the most selfless thing they can do.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s all irrelevant. Because that whole thought process – that a suicidal person would and should consider the impact on others – assumes some kind of rational thought and sane intent.
With few possible exceptions, committing suicide is a result of flawed thinking and an unhealthy mind. I imagine there are circumstances in which ending one’s own life might be the logical and healthy choice, maybe even the most charitable choice (sacrificing one’s own life to save another, for instance).
I also have a personal belief that the decision to end one’s own life when faced with terminal illness could be considered as charitable. An ailing person may consider the end of their own pain as one of the criteria for making that decision, but I’m certain that their thought processes also consider the impact on their families, including the cost of extended palliative care and the emotional cost of watching someone you love be in extended pain.
Setting aside these specific circumstances, however, most thoughts of suicide come from a place of escape from a different kind of pain. In that case, it might be useful to separate the behavior from the intention or intended outcome. For a moment, consider that no matter how detrimental a behavior may seem, there may be an intention that could be viewed as positive.
Separating Behavior From Intent
Shift your thinking away from suicide for a moment, and consider something only slightly less life threatening: smoking cigarettes. Anyone who’s been paying any attention knows that smoking is harmful to our health, yet millions of people still smoke every day. Are they deliberately harming themselves? Is THAT their intention?
Having worked with a LOT clients who came to me for help to quit smoking, they are usually desperate to change that behavior. I can tell you that most of them are NOT actively seeking to harm themselves. Quite the opposite, actually. Most of them are seeking some form of stress relief, comfort, pleasure, even community – or simply distraction.
Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t seek comfort or pleasure or community or stress relief or distraction at times? People who do not smoke simply use other behaviors to seek these very positive results. So if the person who smokes can separate the intention, or intended outcome, from the behavior, they give themselves the opportunity to choose a different, hopefully healthier, way to seek that outcome.
Viewed in extremely simplistic terms, suicide is the same. An act or behavior with the intention of creating a positive outcome – relief from emotional trauma, escape from pain…peace. However, with suicide, the behavior is provoked by flawed mental processes and/or mental illness – often both.
For someone coming from the perspective that the act of suicide could have a positive outcome, the flawed equation might be:
Death = Relief From Pain
This equation is flawed because it is a false equivalence. It assumes that there will be the FEELING of relief…and as far as we know, our emotions die with us.
We Were Talking About Suicide Being Selfish
I think that the only way to view suicide as a selfish act requires that we:
- assume that consideration of others was discarded completely AND
- that the act was in some way intended to be a good thing for oneself AND
- that the person was of “sound mind”
My personal perspective is that my father, who viewed my brother’s death as “selfish”, was being selfish in doing so. My father was concerned exclusively or excessively with his own pleasure or well-being – his own desire to feel “ok” – without regard for what Joe was feeling.
Understanding Irrational Behavior From A Rational Perspective
Because suicidal behaviors are not coming from a sane and rational brain, they might be hard for sane and rational people to understand. Maybe the easiest way to deal with that is to allow for the possibility that we don’t know, and maybe will never understand, what that person was going through.
If you, like me, are one of the ones who have been left behind, however, I want you to know:
YOUR pain was not their intention.
Your sadness was not the result they were seeking.
Someone’s suicide is NEVER about the people they leave behind. It is about their own pain. They simply want the benefit that they have erroneously decided would be a result of their death. If they have gotten to that place in their own mind, then they are not thinking clearly – they are not being sane and rational.
They have simply made a tragic and irrevocable mistake.
So yes, for some people, if they are sane and thinking rationally and have people in their lives that will miss them and they STILL choose to commit suicide, I suppose it could be considered a selfish act.