–Gandhi (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. xxvi)
While there is much selflessness in the world today, thank goodness, there is nothing about nonviolent action that guarantees selflessness or altruistic intent. Most people would actually admit to engaging in such action for some personal reason: a feeling of belonging; an unmet need in their community; a sense of self and purpose. It’s called enlightened self-interest, and it is a good tool for organizing and keeping momentum going on an issue: keep people aware that their highest self-interest lies in the success of the issue on which you are working. That’s not manipulative, that’s being honest, for as Gandhi would point out, there are laws made by human beings and laws of nature. Humans are social creatures and it just so happens that the good of the one is contained in the well-being of the whole. Lending ourselves to support one another’s struggles is not a morally selfless endeavor: it’s the recognition in action that we are interdependent and interconnected, even if on the face of things, it does not seem that way.
But isn’t this drawing upon a negative view of human nature? That human beings are inherently selfish and the best we can do is to appeal to that instinct of self-preservation and personal well-being? It depends on how it is framed. Michael Nagler has suggested that while self-preservation is indeed a strong instinct in us, we also have an instinct for self-sacrifice. Nonviolence, to be really effective, must appeal to both. And no one was a better scientist, or might we say, artist, at this than Gandhiji. Is it selfless to befriend those who consider themselves your enemies? Or is it really selfish (and very courageous at the same time!)?
Perhaps our task is to reframe the notion of being selfish. It does not mean that we are morally bad if we have selfishness in us, it might just be a sign that no one has helped us to personally discover the power of living for others. Nonviolence can speed up the evolution of this process.
Experiment in Nonviolence:
Consider where you see selfishness in yourself and how it can be redirected to support others around you. It’s not cheating to remind yourself you’re being (enlightened) selfish to do it!