Selfishness: The Greatest Challenge of the 21st Century


by Bruce Sutchar

bruce_sutcharRev. Sun Myung Moon has always maintained that truly the greatest revolution in the world is the one from selfishness to unselfishness.  Likewise, nearly every spiritual teaching has always dealt with the idea of transcending the self and being one with the universe.  From Buddha, Lao Tse and Jesus, to Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, and many of today’s modern writers, all have focused on this critical point. In modern psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung also wrote of the importance of the self-centered ego in explaining our everyday actions.

Jesus taught it is better to give than to receive, but for most of us, this is little more than a nice phrase to quote—one that everyone agrees with, but few try to observe.  Some spiritual disciplines even equate our condition to having a raisin heart—one all scrunched up but with minimum capacity to give and receive love.  After we marry and start having children, it finally becomes opens up, when we actually experience more joy watching our children open their Christmas presents than our own.

Each of us has only one pair of physical eyes.  These eyes see the world from our own point of view.  The Divine Principle teaches that one of the four fallen natures is seeing only from our own point of view.

In our lifetimes we develop the amazing ability of justifying whatever we think, act or feel.  There is always a reason for how we behave and that reason can always be justified, explained and rationalized.  The one thing that these aspects have in common is they are all justified from our self-centered perspective.

Today, many of us spend much time behind the wheel of our cars.  We look out at the road and view much of what everyone else as doing wrong.  Driving too fast or too slow, changing lanes improperly and in today’s world, doing some other activity other than steering the car: talking on our cell phone, texting, eating, and many others.  Yet, few of us ever take the time to criticize our own behavior, which from our self-centered perspective is almost always correct.

When we argue with our spouses, our children, our bosses, or our co-workers, we think we are always right.  When we argue politics, sports or nutrition, again, we think that we are always right. Why would anyone ever put forth a fallible argument — that would be a sure sign of mental imbalance.  It is truly a rare occasion for one to put his head in his hands and repent in tears for such stupid behavior.  It’s usually only years later, after some deep insight, that we realize maybe we were not correct after all.

Since we have but two physical eyes and one physical mind, we do look at the world from our own point of view.  Rev. Moon once told us that we arrive at our greatest moments somewhere in our 50s or 60s.  At this age, we can collect the wisdom from our mistakes, combine it with the lessons we have learned in life and still have the vigor, strength and maturity to act in a healthy way.

Bob Dylan, the revolutionary poet and musician from the ‘60s, was recently quoted in Time magazine as saying how sad it is that in today’s world, no one even looks at their fellow travelers through life as they walk down the street.  I noticed that while walking downtown the only people I ever see smiling or laughing are those on their cell phones, talking to someone invisible to the passersby. And it would be so easy to find some fault in everyone who passes us by.

Phil Ochs, another ‘60s revolutionary poet/musician, once defined a liberal as someone ten degrees to the left of center in good times, but ten degrees to the right of center if it affected them personally.

Whether it be divorce between a couple, a war between neighboring countries or a feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys — most conflicts come between folks that know and are close to one another.  Again, so much of this can be simply broken down into selfish behavior.  What is good for me is good for me.  My desire in life certainly precludes your needs.

Thus, Rev. Moon notes that the most serious problems are usually between those very close to one another.  Whether it be brothers in the same family, neighbors on the same block, or on a national level, countries like North and South Korea; Northern Ireland and Ireland; neighboring countries in Europe, Asia or the Americas.  Even within religious denominations, there is often serious conflict, many times resulting in a permanent splitting of the denomination.  Hatred and prejudice likewise are often caused because people don’t like people who look different, talk differently, dress differently or even eat different kinds of food.  People have a history of hating people who look, speak or culturally behave different from themselves.  I believe most prejudice is caused by people’s fear of something different.

One incredibly important area where selfishness rears its ugly head is during lovemaking. When you are making love with your partner is it still all about you or about them?  This may be the most critical time of all for selflessness.  Our TV airwaves are flooded with ads for the new pills that guarantee a man a great sexual experience.  But is one’s performance what it’s all about?  As young husbands, most males may well be concerned about their performance.  But again, as Rev Moon has already stated, as one matures, you begin to realize that you are not having sex or making love to someone, but rather you are delving into the incredible situation of melding your spirits and experiencing love together.

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Jesus says in Matthew 7:3-5, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  Likewise, a familiar proverb says that when you point one finger at someone else, your other three fingers are pointing back at you.

Modern psychology notes that it is usually your own hang-ups that cause you to notice something wrong with someone else.  Why does someone’s particular behavior bother you so much, while you don’t even pay the slightest attention to something else ?

The problem with all the revolutionary and hippie talk in the 1960s, from John Lennon to Abbie Hoffman, was that young people knew exactly what was wrong with America and her institutions, but they had little hint as to what to do about it.  They knew what was wrong with the Vietnam War, what was wrong with Presidents Johnson and Nixon, but they had no idea how to change the situation. As Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver once said, “if you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem.”

Even with all the opposition to marriage equality, the heterosexual and religious right is rendered powerless because the incidents of divorce surely outweigh the merits of successful marriages. So it’s just the pot calling the kettle black.  Is a broken heterosexual marriage better than a long- standing gay alliance?  And what is better for the children—a committed homosexual couple that adopts or a heterosexual couple that commits adultery or divorces?  The argument is that every child needs both a mother and a father—but what if that mother and father cannot fulfill their proper role and covenant as husband and wife?

I must concur with Jesus and Rev. Moon.  It is much harder to get a selfish man to let go of his selfishness than to have a camel go through the eye of a needle.  The revolutions that our Founding Fathers, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro or Che Guevara and others led were in many ways far easier than getting one individual to give up his self-centered lifestyle.

Simple selfishness is probably the 21st century’s greatest challenge to world peace.♦

Bruce Sutchar (UTS Class of 1985) is Midwest Director of the Universal Peace Federation, USA.

7 thoughts on “Selfishness: The Greatest Challenge of the 21st Century

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  1. Absolutely correct. This is the root path to the establishment of Cheon Il Guk, the principle of unselfishness: Living for the sake of others. Cheon Il Guk at its base foundation will be a nation of “other-directed” individuals and families with individual personalities and needs but without the individualism that prevails in American society. Although fallen man (or woman) may act based on an unselfish motivation, sadly the tendency at times becomes self-directed: what is in it for me? How can I profit from this?

    When we look to complete give and take action, we may try to “take” more than we gave. But this goes contrary to living for the sake of others, or, unselfishness. It is yet another instance of fallen nature manifesting its ugly power over fallen man, twisting relationships into one of domination by one over the other. True domination is domination of heart. Rev. Moon taught that in the laws of physics, output of energy or action is less than what has been input. Thus, fallen man tries to “grab” more to satisfy a missing element in a relationship. In true relationships, the subject and object engage in give and take, and a second power enters if the subject and object are in harmony and unity. When the subject does not interfere in this process, then true unselfishness will bring energy back to the subject to complete the process of give and take, and selfishness does not exist.

  2. I agree that the article is on target. Selfishness lies at the base of most social problems. We can add misuse of public money and the lobbying of government to get other people’s money — in the name of justice.

    However, selfishness cannot just be equated with the Fall. We are born selfish for purposes of survival and learn self-transcendence and altruism through growth. A new-born baby thinks only of physical discomfort and cries for food and other needs. When it feeds from its mother’s breast, it doesn’t care what Mom is thinking about or whether she’s had a rough day. Gradually we become aware of the world around us, the existence of others, their feelings, our social group and its norms, and after significant growth, we reach Buddhahood.

    So selfishness is human nature and it becomes “fallen human nature” when growth — the natural expanding of consciousness — fails. Interaction with family members, school peers, and learning about other cultures so you can transcend your own roots are all required for the development of this consciousness. Selfishness becomes Fallen Nature when one has physically aged and not had the appropriate development of consciousness — when one is 13 years old and throws tantrums like a two-year old.

    In this respect, we cannot blame people for being selfish, but have to look at the families and schools that raised these people without enabling the expansion of their consciousness. There may be some people who learned a high level of consciousness of others who slip back — perhaps from temptation. However, I would bet that the majority of selfishness is a result of inferior socialization in families and schools.

    1. Gordon Anderson is correct in pointing out the role of self-interest. Without desire and self-interest no one would do anything. It’s similar to the centrality of the profit motive in economics, or the planting-motive in agriculture. Without the anticipation that planting the seed, instead of eating it, would yield a profit — the belief that the seed would result in the growing of more grain or whatever — there would be no reason to make the sacrifice of planting the seed. Without the anticipation of profit, there would be no motive to undertake any economic venture.

      So the crucial difference, I think, is between self interest, which is absolutely necessary for human life and action, and selfishness. What then is selfishness? I think it can be said to be self-interest that has crossed the line, from what is necessary and commendable to what is destructive and objectionable. Where is that line, how can we recognize it, and what can we do to avoid crossing it? Those, I think, are among the most difficult ethical questions that humans face, and there is, I think, no easy solution and maybe no universal solution to them.

  3. You state the problem, but don’t suggest how to solve it. “Save your neck or save your brother,” is a line from a song by The Band; “Looks like it’s one or the other.” Why is there no solidarity among those at the bottom? As soon as two or three are together, they go for the hierarchy. Who of Jesus’ disciples served the others as “the chief” did? In European football when looking for an explanation why one team lost, there is the expression: 11 chiefs, but no Indians.

    A Liverpool manager once said: Football is like playing the piano. Two guys are artists, the rest have to carry it. In today’s society, Me Incorporated meets Me Incorporated, chief meets chief, everybody wants to become the king. As long as there is a Jesus or a Francis of Asissi, we follow, but as soon as they are absent or dead, we realize the antagonisms among one another.

  4. I agree with the gist of this piece although I have some reservations with two examples that the author uses.

    I am Irish and I can say that the problem between the north of Ireland and the Republic is being solved and has been solved to a greater or lesser extent. At one time the problems would have appeared insurmountable and intractable but many leaders and ordinary people reached out to each other despite their differences in politics, religion, culture, historical perspectives, etc., and created a much better society in northern Ireland with a much better relationship between north and south. There is always hope. The bottom line is people live in relative peace, free from fear…a victory for unselfishness over selfishness.

    I have difficulty with the author’s arguing for the rights of a homosexual couple to adopt children as this seems to fly in the face of Reverend Moon’s teachings about the sacredness of marriage between man and woman and the rights of children to have a father and mother. Surely all of this ties into the fundamental origin of selfishness.

  5. Much has been written about the Romanian orphans that were warehoused during the Ceausescu era; infants that grew up without a mother’s loving voice and hand, nor anyone else’s for that matter. After the Romanian revolution deposed this dictator, the world saw what physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual deprivation had done to thousands of children. I was reminded of this recently by the words of a man in his thirties who was one of those orphans. He was adopted by a loving family in Canada and in his own words described his bizarre emotions and actions he experienced in receiving love and recognition. He was wired very differently from other young people who received any kind of parental love during their earliest years. This made me wonder. The comments of others on selfishness also made me think and these are the thoughts that resulted.

    Could it be that all of us are like these abandoned and neglected young people to some degree? We were not raised in and with the true love of our Heavenly Parent just as our physical parents were not. Unknowingly we all inherited the insidious disease of the spirit — “selfishness” that deadened our sensibilities of caring for others. Perhaps it is true that in this broken world we learned at a very young age that selfishness will keep us alive but I think and dream of another world where our survival is assured by the loving empathetic efforts of others.

  6. I would posit that the real greatest challenge of the 21st century is more primal than that. I suggest strongly that the award will go to our “emotions” as our greatest challenge. For it is the “force” of that process that gives “self” the sense of “righteousness” that allows and promotes such self-centeredness. Ever since the fetus brain was impacted emotionally within the mother, before being born, such a high value orientation was “created” and inherited by the incoming innocent spirit at birth.

    The ideal purpose of family is to “educate,” by experience and cognitive effort, the self to learn how and why to integrate into greater and greater “communities.” Hence, what is missing in our lives is that awareness of the significance that our emotions play in almost every decision we make. Until that “creature” is owned, educated and chooses alternative ways of engaging the opportunity for relationship, the “selfish gene” will rule. We can believe in “doing good” but our emotional nature was created in a furnace of sin and our reactions to that even before we, as a spirit, get in the “control” seat.

    So, not understanding the role of emotions in the continuation of Original Sin from generation to generation, we will likely continue tilting at windmills. We’ll also struggle with a selfish nature not understanding why we have not matured and spiritually advanced as we imagined we could. Emotions are the challenge; experience and education the means to restore them so that selfishness will not enter the equation of how we live.

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