In all of our lives there certainly are those times when it is very healthy to live only for ourselves. If we are just about to give birth to a child, if our recovery in a hospital from a lifethreatening illness like alcoholism is at stake, or if we are powerless over another family member’s out of control behaviors, it’s rather wise and necessary to focus only on ourselves and our well being. Detachment with love has an essential place in our lives.
However, what if we are just going about the business of living and only want to focus on our own needs to the real exclusion of care about others? We might say to ourselves, “I am not my brother’s keeper” or “Every man for himself.” Are we living a healthy life with such attitudes?
My brother lives in a gated community in Florida. He has everything a person could desire: a beautiful mansion, year-long warm weather, a gorgeous wife, two golf courses, his own tennis court, a pool, Jacuzzi, and he pays no state taxes. What more can you ask for? Yet when I visited him recently I sat quietly in his estate and stared up at the gilded ceiling in his amazing living room wondering why I felt so empty and depressed over his good fortune? Was I just being a jealous sibling? Was it even fair of me to judge his way of living? After all, this was his life, not mine. I couldn’t figure out my discomfort. Finally it dawned on me. He and his wife live alone in this palace cut off from the rest of the world. Just miles down the road is a large community of poor people, some of whose children may likely go to bed hungry. Then there is my brother and his wife living in such splendor. I started putting myself in my brother’s shoes. I asked myself, “How much is too much?” I started noticing a great emptiness in being in his mansion. Oh, my brother is not a bad person. But he is caught up in a way of living that is only for him. I began questioning if sometimes I am very much like my brother. And I don’t even have the mansion!
It’s very hard to see good people making poor choices and then getting trapped by the kind of lives they are leading. When you have so much wealth, the wealth owns you. My brother has to constantly shell out money for security, has nothing to look forward to as his life is perfect, and doesn’t know for sure who his true friends really are. He persistently asks himself, “Is this person nice to me because he really likes me or is he just wanting to get something from me?” How does he know for sure that anybody likes him; would they be there if he didn’t have money? There is a facade and superficiality that my brother always has to maintain, which further robs him of the true joys of life. It is very hard to feel your life has any meaning when all you do is play golf, make money, and sit in your Jacuzzi. Indeed, many of us might wish we had his problems. But unless you really put yourself in his shoes would you know just what you are wishing for. The worst part is realizing that many of us are trapped in our own lives of excessive self-interest. A pact with the devil is no picnic!
What does research tell us about happiness and excessive self-involvement?
Excessive self-involvement is not good for our happiness. People who cut themselves off from others and strive only for material success have the highest rates of alcoholism, mood disorders, marital discord and suicide risk in themselves and their children. It may seem that focusing only on our own families is a good idea but just the opposite is true. We humans have been wired through eons of evolution to be social creatures. The health of our immune systems is very much affected by our social connections. Having three hours per month of informal social contact with others outside our family has the same health benefits as quitting smoking. When close friends put their hands on our shoulders in a healing gesture we can tolerate acute physical pain that otherwise could only be poorly managed by drug therapy. Money cannot replace people. Pursuing wealth up to a certain point ($40, 000 per year) is crucial for our happiness to provide basic health care, safe housing, food and security. Beyond that point we do not become happier with the more income we earn. Once we have enough to support out basic life needs, pursuing more wealth does not increase our happiness. Studies show that the happiest people in the world are people in Scandinavian countries. Social scientists attribute this well being to having universal health care, living in community, and believing that it is not such a good idea to have more than you really need. When your self-expectations are moderate and your social connections are high you become very happy with whom you really are. Why do we need to even worry about other people?
It’s not a good idea to have massive inequality between the haves and the have nots. The fact is that we all need each other in more ways than we’ll ever know. Our basic security will be threatened if we only live for ourselves. People who have little, will only tolerate for so long to have their own children go hungry to bed every night. Eventually they will take what they need and we will have to stay in our gated communities like prisoners. The quality of our lives gets greatly diminished if all of our energies only go into ourselves. Watching other people suffer while we have everything is no cause for celebration.
Indeed, most of us get our basic life meaning by doing good deeds for others or having some greater good for which we work. We don’t get much lasting happiness from our individual successes even when we have made good choices. Lottery winners six weeks after their win are no happier than they were before they won the big ticket. People in good careers eventually take their success for granted and are not happier the longer they work. What really makes us happy is challenging ourselves to learn, and getting involved with people who benefit from us. When we help others they often give us back more than we give to them. Finally, there is the practical matter of who will perform the mundane yet vital tasks of life in our own little world. If we don’t care about the education level of other people will we feel secure in who works on our car, puts a roof over our head or draws our blood at a health clinic? The truth is we really, really need each other more than we will ever know. What’s good for one is good for all. We’re all in this together.
Why do we isolate ourselves from others?
When you ask an alcoholic why he doesn’t get close to sober people he might say, ”Well I never let relationships get in the way of my drinking.” Oddly, it is these very sober people who could help him overcome his alcoholism. In much the same way many of us choose to isolate because we don’t want people to get in our way of life and misery. It’s way safer to play video games on our own, endlessly search the Internet or have Facebook friends, than run the risk of actually having somebody like us in a real life, face to face relationship. If we allow somebody to like us we run the risk of losing them and getting our hopes up that from page 4 we are actually likable.
Too many of us have been hurt in relationships, see ourselves as unlikable and choose to be aloof from others or only stay in fantasy relationships. Such fantasizing and retreating from real life is made much easier these days by our over-reliance on electronica. We never need to leave the house, shop for food, or see another human being as long as we have our iPhones and iPads.
We will never need to actually feel the vulnerable parts of ourselves as long as we have things to replace people. Most of us are just too scared to feel because our hearts have been broken once too often and we don’t trust other people to help mend our broken hearts. Things never break our heart but people do. So we only live for ourselves and chase things.
Getting outside of ourselves
The story in the bible where Jesus told his Apostles to give up all they own and follow him has always intrigued me. Why would it be good to give up all you have? I think the idea in this story is that when we give up our usual way of doing things and dedicate ourselves to the greater good of others we come into a whole new perspective that offers us fulfillment and meaning beyond any material needs. This idea is very much like trusting our Higher Power. Clearly much of our lives are filled with the necessary tasks of making a living and supporting our own families. However man does not live by bread alone. There is a spiritual part of each of us that needs to be fed as well. Doing so means stepping outside of ourselves in some courageous way.
It’s best to start small. We might take a faith leap in putting aside our fears and volunteer a few hours at a food shelf, offer to shovel our elderly neighbor’s walkway, or organize our family to visit lonely people in a nursing home. Some of us may decide to do this service as part of our church community in a more organized way. Some of us may decide to volunteer regularly in a large effort, such as Volunteers of America. Some of us may donate our monies to charity and work for social justice causes regarding income equality for all.
Even if all we ever do is ask our neighbors when we greet them how their week is going, will help us get outside ourselves. It’s essential that we expose ourselves to adversity in others and welcome it. We do so not simply to help others out but as a way of allowing others to help us out. We change when we embrace the downtrodden as they embrace us. Elizabeth Barrett Browning expressed this best when she said, “I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you.” There is way more to life than the small world of our individual successes.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.