DISCLAIMER: I don’t say any of this to be harsh or arrogant. I myself have been and will continue to be highly guilty of pursuing erroneous goal(s) — of not pursuing what matters. My point isn’t about “who is better than who”. My point here is about “what we ought to be doing”. I’m not talking about status, I’m talking about responsibility.
In sports we can see how senseless it is to pursue an erroneous goal.
Have you ever watched a soccer game when one of the little players got confused about what the goal of the game was? I’ve seen or heard stories about kids who habitually or occasionally pursued wrong goals:
- Kicking the ball out of bounds as soon as possible,
- Hogging the ball as long as possible,
- Kicking the ball as far as possible,
- Dribbling & kicking the wrong direction, scoring on the wrong team’s goal,
- and so on.
In sports, we can see that no matter how good you feel about yourself when you achieve your funny erroneous goal, no matter how badly you long to achieve it, it’s not what you ought be pursuing. It’s not what should be be guiding your actions. Period.
Living real life with erroneous goals is similarly senseless. I believe that real value and real purpose exist. And so I believe real, worthy goals can exist. Unlike in sports, these goals doesn’t appear on a visible scoreboard. But that doesn’t make them non-real. P
The furthering of my well-being is an erroneous central goal.
A worthy goal is oriented toward what matters.
If I matter, everybody matters. Whatever (or Whoever) makes me matter also makes everyone else matter.
If people’s well-being matters, then my own well-being is approximately one six-billionth of what matters.
Even if someone mattered more than everyone else, there is only a one in six-billion chance of that someone being me.
So acting as if I matter more than others is utterly erroneous. The furthering of my own well-being is a very erroneous central goal for life.
The furthering of my own well-being is, however, a fully valid sub-goal. If my central goal is doing what’s best for everyone, then I must look after my own needs as well as others’, because I can’t help others if I’m dead. Selflessness is a poor substitute for unselfishness.
- True selflessness would mean that I never attended to my own needs,
- whereas true unselfishness would mean that I never attended to my own needs any more than what I can fairly discern as being ultimately best for everyone.
In other words,
- Selfishness treats my own betterment as the central goal.
- Selflessness treats others’ betterment as the central goal.
- Unselfishness treats betterment in general as the central goal, and treats my betterment and others’ betterment as complementary sub-goals.
My actions reflect my goals. When a prepubescent soccer player develops a ball-hogging habit that doesn’t lend itself very well to winning the game, it’s because she’s focusing on the wrong goals. When I, as a middle class person in a wealthy country, develop a comfortable picket-fence lifestyle whose costliness hamstrings my ability to contribute to the bettering of humanity, it is because I am pursuing my own betterment as my central goal rather than as a supporting sub-goal to the central goal of the betterment of persons.
(Note that by “persons” I do not exclude God. My own view is that God has personhood, and is the “Whoever” that makes us matter, specifically, by loving us. The writing above sounds a bit like secular utilitarianism/humanitarianism, but in fact, it aligns nicely with the Westminster Chatechism: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. Good for God, good for humans. Well-being in the deep spiritual sense.)
~95% of us over-focus on the goal of improving our own well-being.
We are too selfish. No one will ever reach the “perfect” balance-point between serving their self and serving others, and the question of “how much is too much” will never have a solid answer. But let’s be real; most of us know which side we err on: we are too selfish.
Human nature, whether because of evolution or original sin or both, is very selfish. Natural selection tends to allows only you to to be altruistic toward your blood relatives or people that can pay you back, because any gene that doesn’t ultimately favor itself — that doesn’t favor its own propagation — disappears from the gene pool. So unsurprisingly, most of us focus more on ourselves than is good for everyone. For now, I’m saying that’s 95% of us.
~90% of us should work on sacrificing more.
You’ll notice the 5% gap; that’s the people who err so slightly on the side of selfishness that there’s no way to know it. Those people aren’t perfect people — any one of them could have some other catastrophic, tragic flaw. It’s just that they don’t have any way of figuring out whether to sacrifice more or less. I’ll draw a picture:
Unless I have strong, strong reason to believe I’m in the tiny margin of people who are too sacrificial / ascetic / giving / minimalistic / etc., or in the almost as tiny margin of people who would have a hard time knowing which way they’re erring, then I should probably assume that my selfish, status-and-advantage-seeking human nature has got the best of me and landed me in the purple, and I’ve got some simplifying & sacrificing to do. That is, of course, assuming that everyone matters.
It’s really tough to justify leveraging my privileged position in this world primarily for my own benefit when doing so disproportionately hurts others. Why?
Because my own benefit only matters if human benefit matters. Which means that suffering large declines to others’ well being in return for small improvements to my own is simply a bad trade. There’s nothing to be said for it. It’s like ball-hogging and taking pot-shots on a soccer field, preventing ~3 of your teammates from scoring, just so you can score 1 more goal for yourself. It’s silly. It’s senseless and indefensible. It’s harmful and damaging and sad. And I do it too. I’m in the purple bar on the graph. I’m in Purple-Bar-Aholics Anonymous.
“Hello, my name is Daniel Schulz-Jackson, and I’m a purple-bar-aholic”.
At the end of the day I have to conclude that everyone — not just certain people with “a heart for service” — EVERYONE is called to act as if everybody matters, to act with the central goal of “Good” rather than “good for me”. Figuring out how can be difficult, but the difficulty is no excuse to abandon the attempt.