Seeing yourself as others see you can be disquieting. Your friends and relatives, who know you reasonably well, sometimes react badly when you have a negative impact on them. Like when, without realising it, you happen to act in a self-centered way. Taking more than one’s share of food and drink, telling someone else’s story in order to grab the limelight, or criticising someone else without acknowledging one’s own contribution towards a family problem. We are all perfectly capable of being be blind to our individual faults which are glaringly obvious to others. Likewise we may not notice when our own group act in a self-centered way towards outsiders.
Native Americans as victims of self-centered behaviour
When one’s own negative traits are shared by others and common to one’s own community, then such traits are harder for us to see. Yet such faults can be clearly observed by outsiders.
Chief Black Hawk
One example is how native Americans perceived the white men who came into territory that did not belong to them in the 19th century, cheating the local inhabitants and taking away their lands. According to the Sauk leader Chief Black Hawk, his people were not deceitful, and did not steal, yet the invaders spoke ‘bad of the Indian’ and looked at him spitefully.
“An Indian who is as bad as the white men could not live in our nation… The white men are bad schoolmasters; they carry false books, and deal in false actions; they smile in the face of the poor Indian to cheat him; they shake them by their hands to gain their confidence, to make them drunk, to deceive them and ruin their wives… We lived in danger. We were becoming like them, hypocrites and liars, adulterous lazy drones, all talkers and no workers. The white men do not scalp the head; but they do worse: they poison the heart.” (see Black Hawk’s autobiography which became an immediate bestseller and has gone through several editions.)
Self-centered behaviour in modern life
I would suggest these hidden (and not so hidden) self-centered attitudes of self-gain at the expense of others, deceit and hypocrisy, are still very much around today. For example are they not common in international conflict, sharp business practice and the ethos of individualism that characterises western culture? Does a self-centered attitude to life really lead to living well, human flourishing and happiness?
How can our society be at peace when through military and economic means it seeks dominance?
Effect of society on our own self-centered behaviour
We each cannot help but be negatively affected by the cultural norms of contemporary society. It is inevitable that we as individuals share some of its blind spots. How can we as individuals experience contentment when we seek an advantage over our rivals, getting our own back on those who oppose us?
Wanting to be less self-centered
You may feel you need to be more sensitive to the needs of the natural world around you, to better foster the people with whom you come into regular contact, and to seek the good of your community by taking more steps to prevent its harm. The trouble is people these days seem to have little or no time for such things being wrapped up in the business of their private lives. Yet those who are uncomfortable with how things are may feel trapped by their own self-serving attitudes.
Humanist solution to being self-centered
There is an assumption, doing the rounds, that human beings are basically good. That deep down we have a positive, creative and constructive nature. According to this view, self-centered conduct as shown by dishonesty in human relations, addiction, mood disorder, crime, abuse and violence are merely the adverse effects of physical and social environment. Without for example insanitary conditions, inadequate education, pollution, malnutrition, poverty, and shortage of good health care, it is thought people would be fit, sane, kind and good and less focused on their own needs.
Transformation of a self-centered attitude is possible
There is probably some truth in the humanist account. But is it the whole story? From a Swedenborgian perspective, there is a basic weakness in our human nature that needs to be addressed. The weakness is not the original sin believed by some traditional Christians, but rather, according to Swedenborg, it is due to everyone’s inbuilt inclination towards self-orientation.
Perhaps you have noticed how at times you have brought on to yourself disappointment and difficulty? And that this has happened through your own foolish self-centered choices. Perhaps you have realised you need other people to help you get through the troubles of daily living: and that lacking in yourself all the answers and energy for finding happiness, you need a higher force beyond yourself. If so then you will have signed up to a spiritual power that creates bodily and personal growth, heals physical and emotional wounds and enhances well-being. A hidden influence that spiritually minded people welcome into their lives.
How to change self-orientation
According to Swedenborg, although we don’t realise this to begin with, part of the process of personal growth is to accept that of ourselves we lack goodness itself – the reason being what is good originates in the source of goodness (love and wisdom of the Divine) which can be present and active within us. Religious people refer to this as the holy spirit of God illuminating their minds and inspiring their hearts.
In line with this belief is an appreciation that the talents and good inclinations with which we are born, are mere tendencies, for which we cannot claim merit.
If all this is true then without a change in your self-centered attitude there can only be emptiness, meaninglessness, and continued vulnerability to problems involving other people related to selfish desire. In other words the person engaged on a spiritual journey can look forward to experiencing inspiring ideas and loving impulses. I strongly believe that only when a self-centered attitude is moved to the side can you hope to find deep contentment, peace and joy.
As a clinical psychologist, Stephen Russell-Lacy has specialised in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, working for many years with adults suffering distress and disturbance.