Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Selfishness: The context

Definitions of selfishness:
1. stinginess resulting from a concern for your own welfare and a disregard of others;
2. Selfishness is, at base, the concept and/or practice of concern with one's own interests in some sort of priority to the interests of others; it is often used to refer to a self-interest that comes in a particular form, or above a certain level; and
3. … is devotion to or concern with one’s own advantage or welfare to the exclusion of regard for others. Science and religion both teach selfishness: That the first rule of life is self preservation, which results in "me first" and the creed of materialism.

Quotes about selfishness:
1. He who lives only to benefit himself confers on the world a benefit when he dies. — Tertullian
2. Selfishness is the greatest curse of the human race. — William E. Gladstone
3. That man who lives for self alone, lives for the meanest mortal known. — Joaquin Miller

It's difficult to remember when the concept of selfishness first entered my orbit ... but it is not difficult to remember the many occasions when it had an incredibly destructive impact on my life. I am also not entirely sure what and when has triggered another's selfishness ... and how, in whatever way, I have been responsible for their action—their flagrant disregard for my feelings.

I have written about the selfishness of a past partner/lover/boyfriend. His constant, reckless and selfish pursuit of sexual intimacy with, well, anyone else—in much the same way as most fags I have known ... the sad, lonely, cock-obsessed tragics who think that finding themselves perched on the end of a stranger's cock in some way makes them far more worthwhile to society than they truly are. Or to themselves. Or to those who really care about them. The great misappropriation of esteem and value, suddenly and brutally equated to the length and breadth of a stranger's dick. Is this what the value of sexuality is? Does the sexual act—or perhaps sexual greed and need—trigger innate selfishness?

Or to be less (or perhaps more) specific: does the lack of emotional honesty in our lives gradually (or suddenly) instill in us faith in a belief that all else of real value and worth suddenly becomes expendable?

Does the crippling betrayal of one's unconditional trust and belief in the wholesome good and potential of a shared experience destroy our ability to be selfish? Are we so damaged by the experience that we move on and away ... silent, forever, about our needs in case someone destroys us again because we dare to allow ourselves to be open, accepting and vulnerable to them? Pathologically both naked and selfless for fear of being hurt to that extent ever again?

Is that the trigger? Is this the point at where one might feel incredibly alive and worthwhile ... even at the expense of another's needs, value and meaning in their life? And then, like some grotesque masquerade, buoyed with the ballast of this vain and fleeting conceit, they sail on—blissfully unaware that their worth is actually afloat on the decimation of another's.

Is this what 'learning selfishness' is?

In what circumstance and at what point do we decide that our needs have more priority to the needs of others? In my case, the quandaries and conflicts in my life have arisen because of the very opposite of selfishness ... selflessness: "having, exhibiting, or motivated by no concern for oneself; unselfish." ( I don't want this to read as though I have a Jesus Complex, but somewhere along the line, my priorities have become incredibly skewed … I've bundled myself off in a corner somewhere ... to watch the paint dry.

Are we taught to be selfish? Do we learn to be selfless? Is there a point in our journey through life where we finally realise that, apart from only the good dying young, that those who pursue their goals and aspirations with dogged, selfish self-determination are the ones that get 'there'? I will be able to discount this possibility entirely in a future post ... but it doesn't change the overall challenge to the context of these qualities in the way we present to the world. Or ourselves, in the quiet, fearful hours of lonely contemplation.

Selfishness and selflessness are equally powerful and destructive forces. Selfishness, by its very definition, can't exist in isolation ... one needs the other. So is the act of one's selfishness made more potent by the extent to which it is matched by another's selflessness? Have I, in some way, added fuel to the fire by matching people's incredible selfishness with my own peculiar selflessness? Is it, perhaps, that one's selfishness is dramatically inflamed, and possibly even dragged into existence, by another's selflessness?

So what then happens when two equally selfish people meet? An explosion of need? And what happens when two equally selfless people meet? An implosion of equal velocity? A great spontaneous nothingness?

Or is selflessness simply Fear underwritten by Weakness? If I look at any number of the unhappy circumstances present in my life at the moment, I could take a completely different approach to each of them. I could say what I really think about how I really feel ... or I could do as I do—which is respect the other person's situation … a complicit and unholy alliance between a person who might have known better and a person who does, but is too afraid of confrontation that they silence the solution. Well, one of the solutions anyway.

Creating Theatre trained me to be selfless. My scripts would arrive in the rehearsal room, and from that point onwards, you value the contribution made by everyone who comes in contact with it, before handing the (un)true realisation of it over to the ensemble and releasing it to the many relationships it is to go on and experience: the actors, the technicians, the audience ...

Creating Theatre, in a way, drills the capacity for honest reaction out of you. It creates the circumstances and the environment in which your once perfect vision exists in hybrid form … possessed by others ... spoken, felt, watched, and listened to by people often not of your choosing. And yet as the creator you are silent. Immune.

It is a precious and rare exchange, and one that does not necessarily belong in the domain of business ... or even life generally. That, I think, demands the very personification of the Law of the Jungle:

Can I fuck it? Will it fuck me?
Can I kill it? Will it kill me?
Can I eat it? Will it eat me?

And when the Australian actress Leah Purcell warned me that I "had bad magic happening on that stage" only hours before my Opening Night of the Sydney Film Festival, I should have handled my response differently. Very differently. But that is another story ... and one it is time we shared.


sydney arts journo said...

Jesus! Nothing, nothing, nothing and then... Three posts...!

sydney arts journo said...

Jesus again! Just read the posts... and my goodness... I have been waiting for this chapter to emerge from within the art of distraction.

May it become the art of destruction... I wait now with baited breath. Purcell v Williams. Round 2.

Geoffrey said...

Don't hold your breath SAJ. There's another candidate to write about first. Call it a triptych.