You are currently viewing Being Stoic is a Refined Kind of Selfishness

Being Stoic is a Refined Kind of Selfishness

If you’re anything like me, socializing can sometimes feel like the last thing you want to do.

Maybe yesterday was littered with frustrating interactions or you know you’re going to bump into a difficult personality this afternoon.

Whether today is one of those days or not, Seneca gave us good advice:

Nature bore us related to one another … She instilled in us a mutual love and made us compatible … Let us hold everything in common; we stem from a common source. Our fellowship is very similar to an arch of stones, which would fall apart, if they did not reciprocally support each other.

Letters 95.53

As much as we might want to, interacting with others is something we can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid.

Even though we may feel resistant, our lives are enriched when we fulfill our natural duty of mutual support. As are those of the people we support.

If you aren’t convinced, here are some short Stoic guidelines that may help you approach today’s interactions with a positive spirit.

  • Attention
    They say there’s a first time for everything. Well, there’s also a last time for everything. Every time you interact with a loved one could, for whatever reason, be the last time. Be attentive and present when you’re spending time with others. That means putting your phone away, it means not just listening, but really hearing and processing what people are saying.
  • Helping others
    We exist for the sake of one another, Marcus Aurelius said. If your neighbor needs help, do the Stoic thing and help them. As an old proverb goes: when a friend asks, there is no tomorrow.
  • Arguments
    Whether it’s with someone you like or dislike, you’ll often get baited into an argument. Or even into just giving your opinion on a controversial topic. While it may sometimes be appropriate to put forward a point of view or defend a principle, remember you always have the option to hold no opinion at all about a thing. Try doing that to see how freeing it is (and how much stress it avoids).
  • Difficulty
    Whether it’s work colleagues or clients, family members or friends, there will be situations every day when people display traits that bother you. Remind yourself that their insolence, ill-will, selfishness — whatever it may be — is not malicious but rather due to their ignorance of what’s good or bad. When you come to expect and accept this behavior you’ll be able to treat it with more equanimity.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius constantly reminds himself to show empathy in his interactions.

In one particular passage, he is clear in his instructions to make every effort to understand what other people say:

In conversation, one should attend closely to what is being said, and with regard to every impulse attend to what arises from it; in the latter case, to see from the first what end it has in view, and in the former, to keep careful watch on what people are meaning to say.

Meditations 7.4

These sincere efforts towards others, the performing of our social duty, he believed, are the very reason we’re put on earth:

Just as eyes and feet were made for a particular purpose, which fulfills them because the performance of that function is what they were designed to do, so, because human beings were made to do others good, when a man does something that benefits someone else, he’s doing what he was made for, and is fulfilled.

Meditations 9.42

The Stoics constantly wanted their students to remember that we’re here to help each other. To listen. To see life from the other person’s point of view, just as we hope that they will try to do the same for us.

It’s equally important to remember, however, that everyone, bar none, is ultimately only out for themselves, whether they admit it or not. That might sound overly cynical, but really it’s a natural thing – why wouldn’t they be?

Think about how many daily decisions you make that benefit yourself first and foremost. We’re all ultimately responsible for ourselves. That’s why it’s such a welcome surprise, a novelty even, when someone goes out of their way to do something that mainly benefits you.

David Foster Wallace put it like this in his commencement speech to Kenyon College’s class of 2005:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

In his book Awareness, Anthony de Mello says that even those people seeking to benefit others are really seeking to benefit themselves. We should bear that in mind and accept it, rather than treating it with cynicism:

Charity is really self-interest masquerading under the form of altruism. There are two types of selfishness. The first type is the one where I give myself the pleasure of pleasing myself. That’s what we generally call self-centeredness. The second is when I give myself the pleasure of pleasing others. That would be a more refined kind of selfishness.

Today, why not adopt the more refined kind of selfishness in your social interactions?

Please someone else—give them your attention, help them, see things from their point of view—and see how pleasurable it is.