A Native American Parable
A grandfather to his grandson said,
"I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart.
One wolf is the vengeful, angry, violent one.
The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one."
The grandson asked him,
"Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?"
The grandfather answered,
"The one I feed."
Just as there are pitfalls in being too selfless so there are pitfalls from being too selfish, and what strikes me about both is what they have in common – loneliness - and both selflessness and selfishness can become habitual.
Selflessness often is a symptom of a person feeling undeserving. Selfishness often stems from a person feeling hard done by; feelings that the world owes them for some hurt or injustice that person feels (rightly or wrongly) has been done to them.
Selfishness can manifest itself through greed, through lack of consideration of others, through criticisms of others, bullying, dismissal, lack of response to others among many other things. In my experience it is common for it to go hand in hand with an inner anger, which if allowed to fester and escalate becomes outward aggression. And to me anger is usually triggered by a fear of something. It's a defence, a barrier and alienates others from caring or getting close to cause them more harm. The usual argument for people who are selfish is that others don't care about them so they just go for what they want and sod what others think or feel.
This is where not being responsible for how others react can be used in a negative way. As outlined previously we are not responsible for the reactions of others, but it doesn't follow we have the right to railroad over other people’s needs or sensitivities. We don't. When we suffer depression though it can be exactly what happens.
If we want others to care about us, we simply cannot expect them to do so if we are not prepared to consider them.
When crashing headlong into psychosis I remember just how self obsessed and downright selfish I was. I wasn't interested in other people's lives; their feelings, their problems - I was wholly consumed with my own. There was nothing else happening in the world but pain and hurt descending on me.
I wanted, and did, lash out at everyone despite efforts from people to be supportive. But to me the form of the help was all wrong and damaging; try as I might I could not explain how or why, which just fuelled my frustration and anger. Paradoxically my fear was that I would be alone, that others would only ever hurt me.
Looking back, I now realize that the thing I needed the most was acknowledgement of my pain in losing my father. I needed others to sit and listen to me talk about him instead of trying to distract me from my thoughts about him. To some extent I still feel justified for feeling hurt by others for them not doing that; it costs so little to listen and means so much, but then I didn't make it easy for them to do so either.
On top of this I lost my job and was having all sorts of financial and practical difficulties too. It really did seem that the world was; if not out to get me, then at least not there for me anymore. I felt alone and didn't like it. I felt punished for being bereaved. I felt as if I was still being expected to go on as usual as if nothing bad had happened as people still wanted my support. I felt angry and totally justified in being selfish.
Depression of this kind is debilitating. Self awareness of our behaviour goes out the window. The ability to step out of our own shoes and see things from someone else's perspective becomes lost. Depression in this respect is a form of selfish indulgence.
Eventually because of my unquenchable anger, I alienated everyone and my thoughts became increasingly disturbed and distorted. I became psychotic and got the help I needed to untie a lot of deep rooted knots. One of the things that made my bereavement more complicated was some of the distressing and disturbing things that were hinted at about my Dad. Although far from perfect I'd always thought he was generally ok; a bit thoughtless but not a malicious man. My dilemma was what to believe of him and how to reconcile the conflicting impressions of him that were going round. Too late to talk to him direct and find out.
In some ways it was unreasonable for me to expect or demand others to be able to be of support as it was beyond their own experience and they didn't know what to say or do for the best.
Only after I was released from sectioning did I get the counselling and acknowledgement of my distress that I had needed for so long. I resolved to settle on what felt fair and right for me to believe of my Dad, and had to ignore what others felt. I also learned to respect that others had the right to hold an entirely different opinion as their relationship was different and he may well have hurt and damaged them. I reclaimed my compassion for others and found I hadn't lost my empathy; it merely got confused for a while.
In truth we are all selfish at times and need to be to work through difficulties; unravel emotional upsets; sort out practical problems. The best way to do so is to inform others that that is what we need to do at that time. When selfishness becomes habitual, aggressive, a symptom of bitterness and anger we need to seek help to get to the reasons behind it to put them to rest. If we don't, we risk being alone, ill and perpetually miserable. No amount of material goods or money will compensate us, no amount of point scoring over others, bullying, belittling or dismissal of milder temperaments will help.
I doubt that any habitually selfish people are reading this blog, but just in case... A wise person once told me that when we criticize others we are also being critical of an aspect of ourselves that we don't like and don't want to admit to.
I believe that in truth everyone wants acknowledgement for their good side, not their bad and, I believe we all want to feel acknowledged, accepted and loved despite our faults. That doesn't come from being malicious, vindictive or cruel.
All emotions should be transient. All behaviours should be down to choice. All thoughts should be part of a plan of action toward happiness. The balance between selflessness and selfishness is a tricky one and neither should be allowed to take control of our lives. Both are extremes to be avoided. The balance is hard to find and nigh on impossible whenever we dwell and brood. The answer to this requires a lot of self work, and a lot of self-awareness and the courage to be honest about our own faults.
To be happy though it’s best not to feed the angry wolf.