How do you see yourself?
Do you care about other people and their problems?
Or do you only mind your own business and let them mind theirs?
Are you a selfish, egotistical, and narcissistic asshole?
Or are you a self-sacrificing pawn of other people’s interests?
The world can be so easy.
Bad guys on one side, good guys on the other.
Victims here, persecutors there.
Some people care, others are ignorant.
We are right, they are wrong.
We live in a world of cognitive extremes. The middle ground of any topic has become the most dangerous place to be. Propaganda abounds in every corner of the internet, mass media, alternative media, private and public debate.
This is the psychological climate and the context in which we dare to explore an ancient question of philosophy:
“Who is more important, the individual or the group?”
This question surges to the surface with every major global event, conflict, catastrophe, or political development.
Should the individual subdue his will to the well-being of the collective?
Or should the collective be restrained as much as humanly possible to preserve the freedom and well-being of individuals?
As in any contentious issue in the 21st century, I would like you now to take it aside. You can choose between being an individualist (asshole!) or being a collectivist (authoritarian!). For this exercise, I will choose the former and hate you if you chose the latter.
Don’t you dare to have a nuanced position on this topic? Beware of the forbidden apple, the terrifying darkness, the land of mind you should never even consider exploring: the middle ground!
Now, I invite you to go there anyway.
Don’t worry. You won’t be alone, at least not for the next 7 minutes.
We will leap into the dungeon and explore the different extremes of selfishness and selflessness to have a clearer idea of where to find the middle ground. There is no guarantee that we will find it.
You can still leave.
If you decided to stay, then let’s dive right into it!
Martin Luther King, Jr. is leading the charge:
Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.
Let’s start by having a look at destructive selfishness aka individualism. Some people consider it the gravest of all sins.
The Darkness of Destructive Selfishness
Selfishness is the greatest curse of the human race. — William E. Gladstone
Isn’t that the opposite and antithesis to family, society, culture, country, and God?
Isn’t that about predatory behaviour that maximizes its pleasure at the expense of others?
Isn’t that about the law of the jungle in which “might is right” and everybody wants to destroy and kill each other?
Isn’t that synonymous with ruthlessness, struggle, brutality, and no concern for others?
Doesn’t every Guru and self-help book tell you to overcome it?
Doesn’t every religion tell you to avoid it or be punished for it?
Selfishness… dangerous territory here. Let’s quickly get out of it. Supposedly, creative altruism is the alternative. Let’s have a look into selflessness.
The Light of Creative Altruism
If selfishness is the key to being miserable, then selflessness must be the key to being happy! — Joyce Meyer
Isn’t that the cure to crime, greed, violence, sinfulness, and exploitation by making people better?
Isn’t that about behaviours that help others, promote genuine concern and maximize the benefit of all human beings, nature, and the world?
Isn’t that about our kinship with all beings on this planet and the environment for which we are to be good stewards?
Isn’t that synonymous with empathy, care, and compassion?
Doesn’t every Guru and self-help book tell you to nurture it?
Doesn’t every religion tell you to pursue it and be rewarded for it?
Sounds very agreeable. Everybody from religion, family, society, culture and even Martin Luther King, Jr. appears to be in strong agreement that selflessness is the way to go. So many people can’t be wrong.
Who wouldn’t want to live in a world of morality, community, and peace?
The only price to pay is being a bit less selfish and a bit more selfless.
Well, something doesn’t feel quite right about it. Who is actually in charge of defining what “morality”, “community” and “peace” mean?
The Darkness of Coerced Altruism
It is the State which educates its citizens in civic virtue, gives them a consciousness of their mission and welds them into unity. — Benito Mussolini (20th-century fascist dictator)
What if “selflessness” meant that you march in uniform together with other “selfless people” towards your death, for a cause that is not your own?
What if “altruism” meant that you are not allowed to own anything, not even your own body, because “selfless” people own it for you on your behalf?
What if “morality” meant that your needs, desires, dreams, feelings, and ambitions are declared void and null by “selfless” authorities who make sure that you are being sufficiently “selfless”?
What if “community” meant that you comply with being sacrificed for the greater good, at the command of a group of “selfless” decision-makers?
What if “peace” meant that you are not allowed to express your thoughts, disagree or say No to abuses and injustices committed by “selfless” people?
A moment ago, I was all hyped up about being selfless, but now I remember that there are some lessons to be learned from history.
Selflessness can be beneficial with the right type of boundaries and leadership. High-performance teams, functioning communities, and families would nod in agreement.
But it opens the gates to hell on earth, when abusive leaders instrumentalize and weaponize the natural urge for selflessness toward their purposes.
Personal responsibility is then abdicated to authorities and humans become capable of committing the worst atrocities imaginable in the name of an abstract cause, that they “give themselves” to. All of this while thinking of themselves as “the good ones” who rightfully “eliminate evil”.
Maybe extreme selflessness is not the way to go. Terrified as we are, let’s run back into the warm embrace of selfishness.
The Virtue of Selfishness
“Man — every man — is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.” — Ayn Rand
What if “selfishness” meant to have a healthy sense of self-worth and to be a positive contributor to ones’ inner circle, family, and loved ones?
What if “pride” meant to stand up for your values and principles, regardless of other peoples’ approval or disapproval?
What if “egoism” meant self-responsibility and the creation of a rich life, full of wonder, excitement, and growth?
What if “individualism” meant to think critically, confront toxic ideologies, and set boundaries against abusive authorities?
What if “ego” was the only remedy to collective and structural oppression?
Is selfishness that bad? Maybe selfishness is the only safe and trustworthy anchor in a world that pulls you back and forth, trying to draft you into other peoples’ conflicts and agendas as their foot-soldier.
The Gospel of Division
“There is no more good-natured, but also no more gullible people than the Germans. No lie can be conceived treacherous enough, the Germans believe it. They follow any slogan which is given to them, to act against their own countrymen” — Napoleon Bonaparte
It is easy to point fingers at history and others, but how gullible are you?
How easily do you believe what you are being told without scrutinizing it?
You can get a quick answer by asking yourself the following question:
Who is your enemy?
Is it the racists, the alt-right, the feminists, the liberals, the powerful elites, the sheeple, the rich, the poor, the men, the women, the infidels, the religious, the collectivists or the individualists?
Add any list of nationalities, skin colours, religions, ethnicities and sports clubs, if you haven’t had enough yet.
Who benefits from you hating these groups?
Did you ever ask yourself why “they” are your enemy in the first place?
Do you actually know any of “them” personally?
Is there any person that fully embodies the qualities that you attribute to the label at all times and in any situation?
Do you even have any personal quarrel with anyone of “them”?
If you do, then is it really because of “them” or because of a particular individual that you interacted with within a particular situation who happened to identify with a particular group label?
Your emotional buttons are being pushed on every turn to tap into your in-born sense of justice and subscribe you into emotionalized conflicts between interest groups. Good and evil. Indefinite warfare. No nuance.
The preachers of division want you to believe that there are only two binary choices on each subject. You are either at one extreme or the other.
Standing your ground in the middle means receiving fire from both sides and there are countless calls to action and quotes by historical leaders condemning the “passive”, “traitors” or “neutrals” who don’t join their particular cause.
Each side applies more rage and fury to the people in the middle than to each other, because the middle threatens their existential logic.
An independent stance is a challenge to their paradigm of a black-and-white, good-and-evil world in which they are taking the position of being good and morally superior to their opponents.
But there are always two sides to each story.
There are and will always be victims to be in solidarity with and powerful adversaries to be fought against. But did you stop and reflect for a moment to realize that most of those are not your fights?
History shows that many times victims can later turn into persecutors and persecutors can find themselves being victimized by stronger persecutors while victimizing others. The entire dynamic is a vicious cycle.
What if after deep-diving into other peoples’ causes, fighting their battles on their behalf as an “ally”, you realize that you have been emotionally manipulated and used? What if the aggression is then turned against you after you served their purposes?
In any ideological conflict, there is something asked of you. You are not supposed to be neutral or have an independent position.
Are you asked to speak out in solidarity with the cause? Are you asked to adopt a certain worldview or act on behalf of the cause? Are you asked to fight others?
Whatever you are being asked to do - is the requested action really and fundamentally solving the issue? Or just problem-focused, blind activism that perpetuates the hostilities indefinitely?
Does the requested action have a clear timeline and a specific desired outcome or are you being asked to pledge life-long allegiance to the cause, no matter where it goes or what is being asked of you in the long run?
Is the cause furthering a holistic vision of justice for everyone or instead furthering the power agenda of one particular group at the exclusion or even expense of others? Are you a pawn in a turf war where one group tries to overthrow another so it can claim the throne of oppression for itself?
Unfortunately, reality can not be categorized into binary models of good and evil and genuine solutions and compromise cannot be found on the surface level of symptoms.
All groups, world-views, and even systems have their home in the realm of thoughts. Many of these thoughts surge from tectonic shifts in the realms of the subconscious mind.
You will barely argue somebody out of ethnic supremacy, religious radicalism, or political rabies by appealing to reason, intellect, and higher virtues. Their fight-or-flight survival mechanism doesn’t hear your words and doesn’t care about your intellectual arguments.
Welcome to the realm of emotions.
Ideologies that paint the world in good and evil offer emotional relief in a world that is uncertain and volatile. Many us-versus-them ideologies are a mental medicine with toxic side effects. They are painkillers for existential anxieties which subscribe their patients into mental slavery.
The salesmen of that medicine know very well, that people only keep buying as long as they are sick. This is why many of these world-views are designed to amplify your deepest anxieties, paranoia, fears of loss, and sense of threat by others.
Maybe the only real loss consists of you being their “client”, buying into their world-views. The real evil might be the very fact that you divide the world into good and evil and that you think, feel and act accordingly.
Extreme positions are not intended to solve anything. They are designed to soothe existential anxieties.
The middle ground appears like an evil intruder who wants to steal the painkillers and throw the patient back into existential desperation. Many people resist nuanced problem-analysis and solution-making more than they resist their alleged “enemies”.
What other people do is mostly out of your hands though. The only interesting question is if you won't stop playing the game of good and evil. There are more interesting games to be played within your lifetime.
Regardless of your response or lack thereof to appeals of joining the causes of “selfless” people, the world will keep spinning anyway. It does not depend on you.
There might be consequences for not caring about the needs of others. This is part of the reciprocal nature of human beings. There are some situations in which you will achieve more by collaborating, sharing, and paying it forward. There are other situations in which it will be to your detriment.
The uniting principle of positive selfishness and selflessness is choice. If you are willing to assume responsibility for the results of your decisions, then nobody has the right to coerce or force you into certain worldviews or behaviours.
You don’t need an abstract entity to come down hard on you and keep you in line to make you “selfless” or make sure that you are being sufficiently emotionalized about particular issues. That is the realm of dictators and the deadening of the human spirit.
If you end up doing things because you feel that you “have to” without any personal investment in it, apart from fear, shame or guilt, then you might want to reconsider how to invest your time and energy.
Not every cause is your cause.
Meeting in the Middle
“At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” ― Lao Tzu
How about being an empowered individual who contributes unique value to the collective or causes on own terms, without being negated or used by them?
What if you believed that you came to this planet with innate value and uniqueness that seeks expression? What if there is a GPS inside of you that draws you to the causes and projects that truly resonate with your soul?
Those causes might not be to be found somewhere out there, but instead, they arise from deep within, out of the logic of your own story and life experience.
Saying No to the causes of others means saying Yes to your causes.
What is the purpose of saving the world a thousand miles away, if individuals you deeply care about are suffering in your direct and immediate surroundings?
You have a personal area of impact which contains everyone who is affected by your decisions and behaviours, as well as an area of influence that encompasses everyone within the reach of your communication.
If you are filling your place where you are, then your areas of impact and influence will organically grow and expand. People will trust you and relegate higher responsibilities to you if that is relevant to you for your life experience.
You also have the choice to stay away from it all or to make trade-offs and workable compromises. If you chose to give yourself to the causes and conflicts of others, then of course you are also free to do so.
Your contribution might be more meaningful, valuable, and powerful if it originates from the uniqueness of your being and the particular issues you faced in your own life, instead of it being another copy-and-paste clone of the status quo or somebody else’s agenda.
There are surely worthwhile and important causes to lend your voice to, even though they are not your own and you are not directly affected by the issue. You just might want to reassure yourself that you are not being emotionalized and instrumentalized by sinister agendas, before subscribing to them.
There is always a tension between having a genuine concern for others and pushing back on coercion and emotional abuse by others in the name of higher causes. There is also tension between honouring your own needs and not being selfish at the expense of others.
Most likely, you don’t fit neatly into any of these four quadrants and instead find yourself in constant motion and negotiation between them. That is part of the creative process and individuation. You are invited to make up your own mind about things and not blindly follow the herd.
I hope that the middle ground has become a bit less scary to you.
You don’t have to take sides between individualism and collectivism or between good and evil or any other ideology. You are even free to change your mind if one or the other approach does not work for you anymore.
We all learn, grow, and evolve. Staying out of other peoples’ fights, you can focus on the only project that might be truly worthy of your attention: Your own life.
If you choose to put it in the service of others, then do so from a place of choice and reserve yourself the right to change your mind to make a new choice when required. Nobody can force you to take sides in their conflicts.
You are invited to see the “should’s” and “must’s” of others as requests, but not as obligations. Your life and the integrity of your mind belong only to you. You owe nobody an explanation or justification.
Unlike the clean-cut positions of extremism, the middle ground is a place of ambiguity, friction and life. Being here means that you didn’t succumb to dead-end belief systems, but that you are still thinking. You are alive.
Welcome to the middle ground. Make it yours.