How to be Selfish: A Patriot’s Guide

Richard Dawkin’s 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”

The way I was brought up there was always a taboo against any kid perceived as selfish. I’m not sure what other options existed or if the idea of enlightened self-interest had already shot across the horizon in an arced, meteoric trajectory, flamed out, and reduced itself to half molten rock.

Even when it wasn’t spelled out, everyone knew, a selfish kid was going to hell. It might take sixty years or more of walking to and fro upon this earth for his fate to unfold but he was going to hell sure as shootin’.

It had every bit the aspect of a scientific fact. Stories of this ilk were prevalent. A child who put his hand in the cookie jar and tried to grab too many cookies, would get his hand stuck, and only get it back after an an embarrassing intervention by fire fighters who arrived at the kid’s grammar school in super exaggerated fashion riding on an enormous, glowing red fire engine, if not a hook & ladder, their sirens wailing, to free the kid’s hand with hog grease or a precision tap on the glass surface of the jar with the dull end of the axe head. A selfish kid who got caught like this—not with his hand in the cookie jar but with his hand stuck in the cookie jar—could literally die of embarrassment.

You didn’t want to be a “ball hog” or take too many swings at the plate. You didn’t want to be the kid who was raised his hand in class so often he had to brace the one hand with the other. You didn’t want to chew a stick of gum on the sly; either you had a stick for every person in the whole dang class or the teacher was going to find you out and pillory you with a tongue lashing in front of your peers that would make you wish you could roll yourself up into a ball of spit and dehydrate.

From as far back as 1945, science started to toy with the idea of a “selfish gene”, a gene whose behavior imitates the human psychological attribute of “selfishness”—inasmuch as it privileges transmission of its genetic material to the fitness of the host organism and its species. By this definition, a “selfish” gene is not a good gene, not a team player, so to speak.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—the most influential reference text for the treatment of mental illness in the United States—identifies narcissistic behavior as a personality disorder. In other words, it is a malignancy and detrimental to individuals and society alike. It lists among its traits1:

  • Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
  • Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerate achievements and talents
  • Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believe that they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
  • Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
  • Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Insist on having the best of everything – for instance, the best car or office

There are numerous psychiatrists who have spoken publicly about their belief that our 45th president suffers from Narcissitic Personality Disorder.

The mental condition he suffers most from is formally known as a severe instance of “narcissistic personality disorder,” which is well established in the psychiatric literature.  The core problem in this disorder is the failure in childhood and beyond to develop an inner sense of worth or self-esteem.  This makes one’s worth entirely dependent upon admiration from others2

Dr. John Zinner, psychoanalyst and clinical professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine
#45 mocking a disabled reporter

Dr. Zinner goes on to explain why the president might deserve our pity.

To cope with the resultant hollow and empty feelings, he reacts with what is referred to as narcissistic rage.  He is unable to take responsibility for any error, mistake or failing.  His default in that situation is to blame others and to attack the perceived source of his humiliation.

These attacks of narcissistic rage can be brutal and destructive, for reasons that are also part of his disturbance.  Especially, these include an extreme lack of empathy, compassion, authentic guilt, remorse, or, fundamentally, caring about the other person(s).  Donald Trump genuinely cares for no one but himself.  He lacks the capacity to feel regret or to avoid the harm he can cause to others.  He can derive a sadistic pleasure for the hurt he may create.

Yet there is nothing that makes President Trump so utterly different from ourselves. How often have we heard the expression that people “vote their pocketbooks?” And what does that mean? When we vote our pocketbooks our voting choice is dictated by our best guess of which candidate will benefit ourselves exclusively, irrespective of how it benefits our neighbors.

Even with my patchy understanding of the New Testament and a patchier understanding of Corinthians, it is clear in Corinthians 1:12 that the metaphor of the body—and more particularly Christ’s body—with its complementary members (eyes, ears, hands, feet) insists on the idea that all of these members have an essential and distinct role to play. They are integral and without them you don’t have a whole and complete body. So, by the same token, the spiritual gifts that God gives to man are all pieces of a common organism.

This vision postulates a radically different notion of self. For example, we might say that the self is Christ’s body, something much bigger and more worthy of esteem than the life of any person on its own. With this notion of self, my self interest is in the vitality of all the parts that make up Christ’s body. It invites me to replace the idea of my body parts for the body parts represented by the image of Christ’s body. Once I accept that invitation, my concept of self changes utterly; it is no longer restricted to my physical self. To the extent that I subscribe to this vision, I am profoundly transformed.

A funny thing about this interpretation is that it serves to demonstrate how perfect a document is our Bill of Rights, especially if you are inclined to interpret it as a bold embodiment of the best of Christ’s teachings, stripped of ecclesiastical taint, off-putting to some, in purely secular terms. That is what makes it a masterpiece. What is the fifth amendment’s protection of a citizen’s right to due process if not a secular expression of the Christian ideal to “Do unto others…”?

More profoundly, the Bill of Rights enshrines the complex notions surrounding freedom of will and the necessity to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, preserving for us the choice to do good and the choice to serve others. For if good will was mandated, what could it possibly mean? Instead it reserves for each one of us the right to seek our own salvation.

This is delightfully in evidence in the formulation of an enlightened self-interest, an idea which came fast on the heels of the Enlightenment and was perfectly expressed by the famous observer of early American culture, the Frenchman, Alexis De Tocqueville3.

The Americans, on the contrary, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.

Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville

Enlightened self-interest is a brand of selfishness well established in this country. It is based entirely on the notion of volunteerism. Thankfully it is alive in America today. I think of former president Jimmy Carter, for example, his wife, Rosyln, and their committment to Habitat for Humanity4.

#39, age 95, at Habitat for Humanity construction site

And here is Jimmy, at the age of 95, reminding us:

One of the things Jesus taught was: If you have any talents, try to utilize them for the benefit of others

It provokes an interesting thought. When President Trump retires, one wonders what he will do. Play golf, build casinos, or build houses for the needy?

[1]: Mayo Clinic. “Narcissistic Personality Disorder – Symptoms and Causes.” Accessed October 19, 2020.

[2]: B, and y X. Lee. “‘Loser’: A Leading Psychiatrist Takes a Detailed Look into Trump’s Narcissistic Pathologies.” Accessed October 19, 2020.

[3]: “Enlightened Self-Interest (Informational Paper),” February 16, 2006.

[4]: Carlson, Adam. “‘It’s Hard to Live Until You’re 95,’ Jimmy Carter Says: How Rosalynn & His Faith Keep Him Going.”, October 15, 2019.