Selflessness - a key to peace

By Bailey J. Molineux, Helenair, Feb 27, 2007

Helena, Montana (USA) -- “I am convinced that man’s fundamental problem is his human egocentricity,” wrote historian Arnold Toynbee.

Toynbee went on to define egocentricity in this manner: “A living creature is a bit of the universe that has set itself up as a kind of separate counter-universe. It tries to make the rest of the universe serve the creature’s purposes and center on the creature. That is egocentricity.”

This is a surprising statement from a man who, in his massive 10-volume work, “A Study of History,” traced the development of the 21 civilizations of the world. As a historian of such breadth, he should realize that self-interest is what motivates humankind. Egocentricity — the desire to make the rest of the universe serve our purposes — is a major driving force in history.

We all act to promote our own interests and well-being. Even the most selfless act is often done because it makes us feel better or helps us to avoid guilt.

A person is born completely egocentric. Since he makes no distinction between himself and the rest of the world, the newborn infant believes he is the universe. He assumes that only he exists and does not yet realize there are other people and things that are separate from him.

When it finally dawns upon him that he is not alone, he wants everything and everybody to satisfy his wishes and will protest loudly when they don’t. Any parent can attest to the fact that young children are very selfish. Caring and respect for others are attitudes they have to be taught.

Why, then, should Toynebee believe that egocentricity is our “fundamental problem” if we are inherently self-centered?

Because, as he puts it, egocentricity is a “forlorn hope” that is bound to fail. We can never realize all of our selfish dreams and demands. There are other people in the world who have legitimate needs that compete with our own.

By an occasional “No,” children must learn they can’t always have their own way. Only through exposure to frustration can they learn to handle the inevitable frustrations they will meet in adult life.

What Toynebee is saying is that our selfish desires, while an inborn part of us and necessary for our survival, can bring us pain. If we fail to receive what we want or demand, we will be unhappy or frustrated.

Frustration and unhappiness are the results of egocentricity. By reducing egocentricity, by asking for less and learning to be content with what we have, we can protect ourselves from disappointment.

This is certainly not a new idea. According to Toynebee, “All the great and historic philosophies and religions have been concerned, first and foremost, with the overcoming of egocentricity.”

Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, proposed this idea 2,500 years ago when he proclaimed that the cause of suffering is desire and the way to overcome suffering is to overcome desire.

J. Bailey Molineux, is a psychologist with Adult and Child Counseling