Selfishness –it’s been around for a while, dogging our footsteps and pulling our chains. The millennial generation is often called‘The Me Generation’ but they are not the only ones that struggle with being selfish. The very first self-centered lie which fell on our forefathers’ ears, “You will be like God,” caused a chain reaction that still shakes our world.
But the level of self-centeredness only allowed to kings in years past now crowns our heads and snapchats and complaints. Most Americans have abundant food, numerous advancement opportunities, and endless entertainment. We are kings and queens –and American culture simply says “have it your way” (as Burger King aptly puts it).
There are several key players in the acceptance of selfishness (also known as narcissism) into mainstream culture. The publication of Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species ushered in an increasing focus on the self as life was seen as simply an individual struggle to be strong enough to stay alive. For if survival was all about being fit, then selfishness is a worthwhile trait for survival. Then, Richard Dawkins took this idea a step farther, promoting the idea that everyone has a ‘Selfish Gene’ which enables them to promote their species’ wellbeing (even when it looks like altruism). Thus, true selflessness is both unrealistic and unnecessary.
In the realm of psychology there are three psychologists who normalized selfishness as a basic and universal need in the last 100 years. Freud (1856-39) argued that primary narcissism (which is found from birth) should be harness for self-fulfillment rather than fought against. Only a few years later, Carl Rogers (1902-87) and Abraham Maslow (1908-70) both promoted strains of humanistic psychology which focus on the client reaching her ‘full-potential’ and having her individual ‘needs’ met.Through such counseling the client was then encouraged to pursue what would lead to the greatest amount of happiness and fulfillment in her life.
The integration of these ideas into mainstream culture happened in the fairly peaceful 1950’s. With the end of World War II came an era of unsurpassed ease and convenience. Life was getting ‘easier’: birth control came releasing sex from some of its childbearing responsibility; labor saving devices such as cars, planes, and dishwashers continued to increase in popularity and demand; and a national peace reigned (even in the midst of the Cold War). What were previously ‘wants’ in mainstream culture, now became ‘needs’ –and these ‘wants’ were quickly becoming very important for personal happiness.
Christopher Lasch in his book, The Culture of Narcissism discusses how Americans are increasing looking for ‘peace of mind’ from the priests of that age (therapists), but the search is becoming increasingly hopeless. The patient was told to find meaning and love in himself; turning the focus on ‘me’ and ‘my feelings’ rather than on the things outside oneself.
But today we haven’t reached a place of peace and satisfaction as a culture—even as we received so many of our ‘needs’. Rather, anxiety and depression are on the rise. The Anxiety and Depression Center for Americareports, that anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million people (18% of population) over the age of 18.
Today ‘third world problems’ are real life worries and selfishness can be seen as a joke. Kanye West proclaims, “I am God’s vessel. But my greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live” –We wince and gag –he’s clearly ridiculous! Or, you see the flagrant self-centeredness in ‘reality’ tv shows such as “Teen Mom” and “America’s Next Top Model” where people scream against other people’s stupidity, all the while being ignorant of their own selfishness. Of course we aren’t like that, right!?
But Christians often are just as self-centered and self-focused. Just look at how many times the word “I” is used in most Christian songs. Hillsong’s“Touch the Sky” is a prime example: In the entire four minute song, forty-seven personal pronouns like “me”, “my”, “I” are used. Forty-seven. A staple of most hymnals written almost 400 years ago, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”, has nine personal pronouns, and they are plural pronouns, like “our” and “we” . This does not automatically mean the older song is better but it does show how self-focused our culture is compared to only several hundred years earlier.
Or, maybe it is our Christian obsession with finding a church which fits us. The Pew Research Centerfound that the four top things that U.S. adults look for in a church is quality of sermons, feeling welcomed by leaders, style of services, and the location. Thus, even in the church simply trying to find something that fits ‘me’ is alive and well.
Not only is this pursuit of personal happiness in the wider culture and in the church, but it is also in me –I just don’t have a stage to display it on. I complain about the ‘lack’ of good food in my oversupplied cafeteria and the boringness of the chapel speaker. I want to hang out with people that make me feel good and do things that make me happy. Selfishness is natural to everyone, including me --but that does not give us license to pursue it.
But isn’t there another way? Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” Paul then goes on to challenge us to follow Christ’s humility willingly. This abandonment of self pursuit strikes a strong counter beat to the beat mainstream culture marches to.
So we just harness these desires and reason away our self-centeredness, right? No, it doesn’t really work that way. Simply saying, “No, I won’t be self-centered” isn’t enough. Neither is it about just trying to act for the communal good rather than my individual good --that would just replacing the ‘me’ with ‘everyone’ on the throne of my life. And it isn’t simply about feeling humiliated and bad about oneself. For this too is a softer, more subtle form of the same sin of self-absorption turned on its head – I am still at the center of the equation even if I feel bad about myself.
Instead our awareness of self absorption should lead us to acknowledge the greatness of God. We must, in the words of Hebrews 12:2, “fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith”. In fixing our eyes upon him, we are able to see more and more of what we have actually been given.
Ann Voskamp in her book,One Thousand Gifts speaks about to look and continue to look at God’s goodness. Worry, self-centeredness, and regret tied her down but she found that through the practice of euchristeo (thanksgiving) she was able to see what really mattered. She began to make a list of the things she was thankful for. And through listing God’s gifts all around her she was able to see the greatness of God and the blessings he gives.
Voskamp asks, “Is this paradox—that giving thanks for what is, creates an appetite for more--not for more things, but for seeking more of God to give more glory?” I would say yes. Thanksgiving takes our focus off us and onto the only one who can hold such adoration and in doing so helps us truly see what’s important.
I learn a bit about thanksgiving when I went to Mpulungu, Zambia this last summer. To get there I had to ride a bus for sixteen hours. For almost sixteen hours they played songs in their native tongue, Bemba. I didn’t know a single word. Then, ten weeks later I made that same journey back this time knowing a few words of their language. For sixteen hours I heard one word threaded throughout the different Christian praise songs: the word ‘Natotela’ which means “thank you.”
Now, Zambia is a country that has relative peace, but one without the ‘blessing’ of the many modern conveniences that graces our American lives without us noticing them. It shocked me to hear the prayer ‘Natotela’ echo in the prayers of the Christians around me: prayers for change around the lake and very little prayers for materialistic needs. Maybe embracing thankfulness is the key to truly see who God is and leave our self-preoccupation?
Self-centeredness and selfishness are easy things; Thankfulness and self-forgetfulness are not. I am still on a journey, but God’s call to thankfulness makes the journey worth taking. And it is something that everyone of all ages (not just the millennials) need to practice. What is more, it is God’s will that we practice thanksgiving just look at 1 Thessalonians 5:18. And so will you start practicing self-dethronement?
Freud, S., Sandler, J., Person, E., & Fonagy, P. (1991). Freud's "On narcissism: An introduction" New Haven: Yale University Press.
The Holy Bible: New International Version, containing the Old Testament and the New Testament. (1984). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Bible.
Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Lasch, C. (1978). The culture of narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations. New York: Norton.
Lunbeck, E. (2014). THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM. In The Americanization of Narcissism (pp. 11-36). Harvard University Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wppwn.4
Voskamp, A. M. (2010). One thousand gifts: A dare to live fully right where you are. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.