Friday, February 20, 2009


I've been pondering the idea of self-centeredness. Selfishness. Self-focus. Whatever you want to call it. Being concerned primarily with me and mine.

Not too long ago, I suggested changing the schedule for something. Someone to whom I made the suggestion asked for supporting reasons. As I listed the advantages, she countered each with an objection. I was torn between doing rebuttals and arguing for each point versus continuing my list. Did she want to hear a brief summary of my reasoning or not? I became agitated and confused as my points were torn one-by-one to shreds and scattered to the wind. Then my friend uttered words that ended the exchange totally. She said, "I can see how you think this would be good for your group, but there are other people to consider. You're not thinking about others."

Whoa! That's a serious accusation. It's not that I'm thinking only of myself but that I have identified with a group of people and don't care about anyone outside that group. Group selfishness. I'm willing for everyone outside the group to suffer in order to accommodate the needs and desires of me and mine.

The reality was, I wasn't particularly sold on the idea I was presenting. I had picked it up from someone else for whom a similar change had proven beneficial. I was simply sharing that information and asking about the possibility of trying it in our setting. If the cons outweighed the pros for everyone involved, I was perfectly willing to drop the matter. I'm not sure how including factors that would benefit "my" group in my list of advantages revealed the proposal to be basically self-focused. I think I caught my friend at a bad time and should probably let the comment go.

As the scene described has impacted my thinking on selfishness, however, I've been thinking about the spectrum from pure and complete selfishness to pure and complete altruism. I'm not sure either extreme can exist in pure form. At the conference I attended recently, I heard the results of scientific research that support Jesus' words that "It is more blessed to give than to receive." Those who give reap significant benefits in terms of health, happiness, and longevity. Thus, there is no giving that doesn't involve receiving of some kind. Once someone experiences the pleasure of giving, would they continue to give if all the pleasure were removed or does self-benefit become a motivation?

At the other end of the spectrum, one might expect to find some purely selfish people who care for no one outside themselves. Maybe such people exist, but they aren't obvious to me. It seems that everyone has at least a "mine" outside of their "me" for whom they care. At what point does "me and mine" become something other than pure selfishness? How large does the "mine" need to be to no longer qualify as selfishness? Is it me and my family? Me and those who suffer as I suffer or once suffered? Me and my social circle? Me and my community? Me and my nation? Me and my world? Me and my universe?

In between the two extremes of pure selfishness and pure altruism, there is a whole spectrum of mixed motivations for actions -- good for me, good for you but not me except when doing good for you makes me feel good, good for us but not them, good for them but not us except when doing what's good for them turns out to be good for us. When giving up my life turns out to be the way to gain it, is it truly unselfish to give it up?

Mostly, it all makes my head spin, but eliminating the end points of totally selfish and totally altruistic does put a different perspective on being labeled as selfish when a proposal that I'm tossing around might be of more benefit for "me and mine" than for some larger group.


OK, you may not notice, but I finally moved over to one of the new Blogspot templates with block editing. Maybe this will inspire me to keep the sidebar more up-to-date.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Interpersonal relationships - hearing what is being said

Recently, I used a word incorrectly. The misplaced word turned a simple observation of current events into a rather arrogant assertion about the future. The friend to whom I made the statement took it at face value and informed me that I was wrong.

As I have considered my friend's response, it interests me that she heard the misspoken statement, compared it to the realm of possible statements I might make, and didn't question whether she had heard and understood me correctly. A statement with that much arrogance apparently is not inconsistent with her view of my character.

Another friend taught me the value of forming a good opinion of someone and seeing words and actions that don't mesh with that good opinion as out of character for them. He encouraged me to say words such as, "That's not like you. You're better than that."

Another friend demonstrates to me the value of active listening. I can't know for sure, but I don't think that friend would have responded to my "arrogance" without first verifying that my words conveyed what I was trying to say. He might have said, "Huh? Are you saying ...?" or "Do you really think so?" I could have then reviewed my words and detected the problem.

The "you're wrong" response not only revealed a negative assessment of my character but also devalued my opinion. My friend accepted the misspoken words as something I would conceivably say and then brushed the assertion aside as invalid. Which it was, in its misspoken form. But it was still a statement of opinion rather than fact and could have possibly contained something worth hearing if I had actually intended to say what I said.

I wonder if I can figure out a way to put a filter into my listening, to measure what I hear against the range of statements someone is likely to make at their best, and ask for verification when the words don't fit into that range.

I decided long ago that negative examples are as valuable as and sometimes more valuable than positive examples. This example of a friend who has apparently developed a rather negative view of my character, judging both by this most recent exchange and previous misunderstandings, seems to be a good source for learning about relationships.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Flying under the radar

Last week I traveled almost 2,000 miles to attend a theology conference. I disappeared from my world for a week and traveled to a far-off, distant land called Idaho. People noticed I was gone. They want to know why, tell me they missed me, and ask about my trip. But they show no interest in the conference itself, just in my absence. If I tell them about visiting my daughter for a couple of days and traveling with her that satisfies both their curiosity and their duty to take an interest in my life as a friend.

The conference itself has left me more aware of the need to "see" people, i.e., to focus on them and love them. One thing that distracts me in that area is when they show enough interest in me to get me talking at length about myself. I become more interested in what I am saying than in my long-suffering friend who is stuck listening. It's obvious when that happens. My own sad self becomes the star of the show, which is not particularly edifying to anyone involved in the exchange.

Thus far, no one has been either interested enough or duty-bound enough to actually ask me about the conference, what I learned, who I saw, the nature of the sessions, etc. A few people have asked about the theme. When I tell them it was about love, they look a little puzzled, but don't pursue the topic. A theological conference about love? What do love and theology have to do with each other? Curiosity is there, but not on a level worth pursuing.

I've told a couple of people more than they wanted to know about the logistics of the trip -- those who are most duty-bound to listen to my experiences. Someone else told me she wants to hear all about the conference -- another time. With only one friend in my everyday world, have I shared anything that came out of the conference itself. That person didn't know I had been gone. Our paths don't intersect enough for her to notice. But they did at one time and she's a good friend. She came into my world this week and asked a generic "how have you been" question. I responded by prompting her with a smile to ask about my trip to Idaho. And she did. I gave her a brief report along the same lines I have given others. The difference is that I could tell she was interested and open to hearing more. When the conversation took a direction that reminded me of something I had learned at the conference, I inserted a brief comment about it into the conversation. She listened and responded with interest.

The "flying under the radar" title to this comes out of the realization that I could have been hunting polar bear in Alaska last week rather than actually attending the theology conference with no particular discomfort when someone turned their radar on me and demanded a trip report. All I needed was a couple of days with my daughter on the way to Alaska to put on my official report and everything else could slide by undetected.

This is not a bad thing. It's not like I'm going to start lying about my outings. My accountability for doing what I say I'm doing and living honorably doesn't depend on people grilling me for details. The reason it interests me has more to do with the give-and-take nature of relationships. Friendships involve two-way communication. I talk to you. You talk to me. In some friendships, I spend more time on the receiving end; in others (or in the same friendships at other times), I do more talking than listening. It seems that people would be hesitant to share deeply with me if I don't respond with some type of vulnerability on my own part. However, I'm noticing that listening to other people often forms a bond that doesn't require more than surface information on my side. Many people never notice that they are sharing more of themselves and their thoughts with me than I am sharing in return. In fact, they seem quite satisfied with that arrangement.

Sometimes I have a need to talk about things as an aid in processing various happenings, but I don't often have a desire to tell everyone I know about it. I'm pleased to realize that there's no need to share more than surface details even when I disappear from my world for a week. People are easily satisfied by simplified, incomplete explanations for such absences. It doesn't take much to satisfy them that whatever happened isn't worth their effort to probe into it.

The nature of relationships is a subject with limitless fascination to me.