Our Dangerous Obsession with the Self

When I consider the great acts of selflessness from the soldiers of history, I am always amazed. Who in his right mind would charge up a hill in the face of trained infantry and artillery when death is imminent? And yet over and over throughout history, that is what men have done for the sake of the cause.

When I lift my eyes from the history books, and rise to the reality of my modern world, I can’t imagine such heroism in myself or in many other men. Maybe, ranged as infantry, I would do the work I was told to do and welcome death, but it seems unlikely.

In most modern people, no cause is greater than the self. And it seems that society has encouraged us to be this way. I’m sure that more educated researchers than I have remarked on this phenomenon, but you don’t have to be a scholar to notice it. We are obsessed with who we are and what we desire as individuals.

For example, sexual orientation in its various forms has found its way into our lexicon, and we now make distinctions between homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality (Have I missed any?), as if these should have some kind of social consequence. Where historically, a sex act was called homosexual or heterosexual, now a person is.

And it’s not just that we recognize these orientations; we study each orientation and entrench it in theory. We try to discriminate one from another. We look for places in the brain or the genome that can explain our sexual attraction. We categorize, define, and moralize, and to what end? We are fascinated with individual differences, to the point where such a mundane thing as the object of one’s attraction becomes the defining aspect of the person.

Similarly, we try to break down personal proclivities into small bits of personality: This person is hyperactive; this person introverted; this person artistic, athletic, melancholic, and on and on.

We have become obsessed with the person –the self. Survey after survey on social media asks “What kind of ‘X’ are you?” We are so focussed on individual proclivities, that I believe few people can put their society ahead of themselves any more. They can’t seem to take an interest in what is going on around them. They don’t read the news, or criticize it. Instead, they’re fascinated by what Harry Potter character they’re most like, or what Disney Princess they are. Many of us don’t worry about the erosion of an environment that can sustain human life, or the erosion of political systems that sustain human freedom. This apathy, it seems to me, is the poisonous fruit of egocentrism – our fascination with our individual needs and desires rather than our collective needs.

I wonder if we’ve lost our way. I wonder if this naval-gazing will hurt us in the end. I often think that we’re so consumed with our focus on the individual that we fail to act against, or even notice, those who would capitalize on our inaction.

It’s interesting that major religions, which arose from the most ancient philosophies, combat the focus on self, and encourage a devotion to a greater power or a greater good. The original philosophers looked at the wonders of creation, saw darkness and light, life and death, and realized that there is an otherworldliness about us –  that the individual is rather insignificant in the great scheme of things. They spoke of a “kingdom of God”, as though the whole interconnection of human beings and nature is itself an organism – of which individuals are only a part. They bade us to look away from ourselves, and not toward ourselves.

Maybe they were right.