Recent terrorist attacks in Europe highlighted the distinction between personal life and life in general. Those closest to the horror: the wounded, the family members, friends, coworkers, experienced a personal sense of loss. The rest have been touched by degrees of distance.
In millennia of human life a small, very present circle was all a person knew. Hunters/gatherers roamed in groups of 100 people. Most have not ventured more than 30 miles radius from the place they were born. The low density of human population made it unlikely for one group to meet another. It seems safe to conclude that early humans knew everyone in their life and that each individual, especially an adult, was quite important.
In our modern world, despite a huge growth in population, social media, swift transportation etc. we seem unable to broaden our circle beyond a relatively handful of people. Research shows that today the average person is personally familiar with 500 people at the most. Which brings me to the point I made at the start: the number of people whose absence would tangibly and permanently impact your life – your personal world – is not much larger than that of your prehistoric ancestors..
What does it mean to you?
Self-interest is an essential part of emotional health: you focus on taking care of yourself. It may seem paradoxical but think about it: focusing on yourself and taking care of yourself, prevents you from being selfish and emotionally exploitative – i.e., expecting the others to center on you. After all, someone needs to attend to your needs if you do not.
Clearly a difference exists between your perception of the world at large and your own personal world. Your territory might be vast, your social network incredibly large and yet the number of meaningful people and places whose absence would be painful for you and linger in your thoughts is quite small and not much different from that of your prehistoric ancestors.
Your personal world is held together only due to your existence. Its complex inter-connections have little meaning to anyone but you. You are the center of your inner and your personal worlds.
While your inner world is you – and would cease to exist when you do, your personal world, the chain of people and places connected by your own perception, obviously does not depend on you to exist. However, with you gone, your world would lose the meaning that your presence created.
And yet despite the obviousness of the above comments, we often behave as if all realms of our existence are interchangeable: worse, we tend to view life as a collective experience, which is governed by Platonian notions of absolute ideals. We try to adjust our personal life to their ideal, universal manifestation rather than make our personal life the anchor point for everything we do.
Consequently we travel the time allotted to us with a host of misleading notions that invariably impede our satisfaction from our life. For instance, we share a belief of the supremacy of the “love ideal”, even though it is a constantly vacillating and unreliable emotion. We aspire to happiness despite it being so hard to achieve and even harder to keep. Similarly we view self -interest, an essential part of survival, as an act of selfishness.
Sadly, we waste countless hours agonizing over notions that are patently unrelated and untrue for our personal life- struggling with irrelevant notions over what we actually experience. We see conflicts where there are none, alternatives that don’t exist, and deny ourselves complex feelings such as the possibility of loving and hating someone or something at the same time. No wonder that the highly idealized notion of selflessness is so appealing to us despite it being counter-intuitive and biologically subversive.
Go ahead, put yourself first. It is your duty to yourself. Do not saddle the rest with taking care of you. It may seem strange to ponder at first, but selflessness, not focusing on one’s self, is actually a very selfish position. As a little baby you were justified in being selfish –you were so helpless that you could not take care of yourself. No one expected you to wash yourself, exercise, keep a sensible productive agenda; you could not even turn without help. As soon as you could, you started wanting to do things on your own. But in our rushed, over protective society your caregivers made every attempt to limit your autonomy. You did not gather your food, you did not dress yourself, and you did very little on your own. You were discouraged from taking care of yourself except when it comes to bodily functions: toilet training, brushing your teeth, feeding yourself etc. And so we grow thinking that our main duty to ourselves is that of hygiene. While important, other aspects of self care (such as creating your life around your own thoughts, feelings and talents –making your life as little stressful as possible) are sacrificed for tenuous altruism, and a set of universal notions irrespective of their relevance to your personal life. The notion of emotional self-preservation is shockingly absent from the everyday experience and discourse. We throw ourselves into situations that we already know would cause us stress and discomfort, we overburden ourselves with tasks; we flood our brains with meaningless trivia and entertainment. In a word, we are often horrible to ourselves. At the end of the day, beaten and exhausted by the life we created for ourselves, we look for diversion in spurious romantic relationship, inauthentic friendships, drugs and alcohol consumption and desperate attempts at self-deceit.
Go ahead, put yourself first. You are the most important person in your life. There is nothing wrong with it. It is the simple truth. Taking good care of yourself would empower you to pay noble and sustained attention to the others, to good causes, to charitable acts; all that is beautiful and rewarding in being useful to the others. Your altruistic efforts are sustainable over time only while you simultaneously and consistently focus on yourself. Think about the fact that while the world is wide and the number of people is staggering, you actually spend your emotional time with the same 500 hundred people and the same few places and scenario. So those need to be the best they can be. Don’t accept into your life what is bad for you. You simply don’t have enough space or time to be that careless about it.