I have been wanting to write about ego and selfishness for a long time but it was hard to put into words what I feel about these topics. Finally I think I’ve found the right words.
Both these concepts are misunderstood a lot. There is also a question of context when people talk about it. Out of the two main points of view, one saying that selfishness is bad and one saying that selfishness is natural and good, I have always felt that the latter has been more close to reality. But slowly I’m starting to understand the exact relationship between ego and selfishness.
Ego is a person’s sense of identity. Usually it is related to one’s own body and one’s own thoughts. We say that someone is very egoistic when they only care about themselves. There is another word that sounds similar to egoistic; egotistic and it means someone who is so full of oneself that they can only talk about themselves. Egoistic people may or may not be egotistic. But all egotistic people are egoists. Selfishness means to act in your own interest. It is related to ego by definition. To be egoistic means to be selfish.
The common idea is that ego and selfishness are both bad and should be subdued. We encourage people to stop thinking about themselves and be more selfless. But I find this idea unnatural. How can you stop being selfish? How can you remove your ego? That would mean removing your identity. You’d stop being a man. You’d be nothing. Selfishness is a survival instinct. You eat when you feel hungry. That’s you thinking about how you feel and acting in your own self interest. That’s selfish. To be selfless and ego-less would lead you to slowly die. It just doesn’t make sense. And yet we all know that being egoistic and selfish is not considered good.
The reason I don’t agree with this common wisdom is because it implies that all men are basically evil. That, if all men were to act selfishly they would manipulate, cheat and kill other men. And that is obviously a very negative outlook towards humanity. We are not animals restrained by social order who’ll go back to being animals if the chains are loosened. Ask yourself, if you were allowed to be selfish would you go out and kill your neighbors?
The idea that people should be selfless is right but it can’t be achieved by shunning selfishness or removing the ego. Sounds paradoxical but let me explain.
Our ego is our identity of us. As a child we identify only with our body and our needs. We are very selfish and it’s right to be so. But when we grow up and get married our ego grows to include our wife and children into it. Our sense of identity grows so that we think of our family before ourselves. Isn’t it easy for a parent to think of his children before himself? Isn’t it common for a parent to go hungry just to provide food for the children? As you can see, by increasing our ego and being selfish about it, we can learn to be selfless. We are still selfish but within our ego we have become selfless. Our family comes before us. Isn’t that why so many men work so hard? If they were selfish they could say, ‘I don’t care about my wife and children so I won’t work so hard to give them a good life.’
In fact when people marry but don’t increase their ego, that’s when they fail at their marriage. There are more and more failed marriages now a days and it’s because people don’t grow their ego to include their family after marriage. When a husband’s ego comes in between him and his wife, their marriage is doomed to fail.
So instead of trying to get rid of our ego we should try to increase it with time.
After marriage our ego should increase further to include the rest of our family and friends and neighborhood and community. The more the ego grows the more selfless we seem to be. Someone who thinks of his whole community as his ego can be very caring and selfless towards it. In reality he’s being selfish but his ego has grown to include the community within it so selfishness seems like selflessness.
The ego should grow further and include his nation within it. Haven’t we seen patriots who sacrifice so much of their personal life for the welfare of their nation? We think they are so selfless and their ego is so small. But in reality their ego is huge and they are as selfish as a common man. You can’t get rid of selfishness because it’s a natural instinct but you can grow your ego and turn selfishness into apparent selflessness. Those who spend all their lives for the benefit of others do it with a lot of happiness. They are happy to sacrifice themselves for others. That’s because they have grown their ego to include their whole community within it.
Rarely, we see people who grow their ego even further. They don’t stop at their nation but consider all of humanity as one. They identify with all of humanity. They don’t care about arbitrary national borders. These are considered great men and praised for having removed their ego completely. Their selflessness is praised. But if you think about it, it’s not selflessness but selfishness that is applied to their very big ego. It sounds wrong because we are conditioned to relate ego and selfishness with being evil and bad. But in reality these men have managed to increase their ego not decrease it. Ego and selfishness are not bad things.
There is another level higher than including all humanity in your ego. We all should try to increase our ego to the point where we don’t just feel love and compassion for the whole of humanity but all life. We should identify with the whole universe as ourselves. That would be nirvana. When we have an ego that is so huge that the whole universe fits into it, it would be like we have no ego at all. All our selfish actions will be concerned with the welfare of the whole universe and so will seem completely selfless. This is the solution of the paradox. In order to get rid of our ego we have to increase it so much that everything comes within it. Then our selfish actions will be completely and truly selfless.
As I understand it, the idea that ego should be subdued and selfishness should be avoided is the wrong idea. We have been trying this idea for a few thousands years and see where it has got us. It has become a cliche. It’s just something we say to others but don’t follow ourselves. We don’t do it because it’s unnatural to try and be selfless. Those who volunteer at a charity to help the needy, do so because it makes them feel happy to help others. They feel happy because their ego is big enough to include other men in it. Empathy can be felt only when we include others in our ego.
By preaching selfishness to be wrong, we don’t achieve anything. Everybody still lives selfishly. The only thing we achieve is that good people feel guilty for doing something selfish. The evil people will always be evil. They believe it’s best to be selfish and they are right. They are evil not because they are selfish and not because their ego is too big. They are evil because their ego is too small. They continue to differentiate between them and the rest of the world. They never grow their ego and never let anyone become a part of it. The problems of this world are not because of people being selfish or egoistic. It’s because people have stopped growing their egos to let anyone else inside.
In order to move ahead on the path of spiritual evolution you should learn to grow your ego. Stop thinking “me” and start thinking “us”. Don’t feel bad about being selfish. It’s completely natural. To be truly selfless would mean to disrespect life. Don’t do that. Instead grow your ego so that you can be selfish about all humanity and all life and in the end the whole universe.