Throughout the centuries, preachers have been preaching against selfishness and extolling the virtues of selflessness. There is a very long line of martyrs and saints enshrined in the annals of church history — people who were willing to make the supreme sacrifice, to give their very lives in the name of their faith or cause. Of course, not everyone can be martyrs or else there would be no church to speak of, so there are also the lesser mortals, like you and me, who do our best to get by, who sometimes make small sacrifices to help others.
And yet, are those seemingly selfless acts truly devoid of self-interest? I don’t think so.
“But how about the soldier who dies for his country?” You might ask. “How about the mother who throws herself in front of a truck to save her child?”
Take another look at those questions and you will see the vested interest quite clearly. The soldier dies for HIS country. You don’t see him taking a bullet for the other side, do you? And the mother dies for HER child, not some random street kid.
Still you might argue that there are those who give up a life of comfort and riches to serve those less fortunate than they are — there are missionaries who go to far flung rural areas, there are social workers living in the slums, and so on. Are these people not selfless then?
While I have no intentions of demeaning their work and conviction, I would still say that these people are acting out of self-interest. They do what they do because it makes them feel good, or at peace, or closer to God. There is still some selfishness at work here.
I remember reading an interview the other day of a popular Catholic preacher and author. He recounted praying to God to make him rich in order for him to help others, which made me wonder why he didn’t pray for God to make the “others” rich instead. I mean, why should the wealth pass through him? So he can collect a commission?
But when I say that everyone acts selfishly one way or the other, I do not mean that in a bad way. I never said being selfish was bad or evil. I am just recognizing it for what it is and throwing out some food for thought that no matter how “selfless” people seem, there is still an element of selfishness in whatever we do.
Let me end with another tale of the master.
The master passed by a minister preaching against materialism. He was exhorting the congregation on the virtues of sacrificing their earthly desires for the rewards of heaven.
“Our treasure does not lie here on earth,” he said, “But it lies in the bosom of our heavenly Father.”
“Interesting,” remarked the master. “You preach against materialism but yours is even worse because you desire to bring it to the next life. You tell people not to cling to their possessions here by guaranteeing that they will have all those and more in the next life. You are after intangible rewards, but a reward nonetheless. What is so virtuous about that?”
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.