Waking Up in Time

Self-Interest -- misdirected needs

Happiness belongs to those who are sufficient unto themselves. For all external sources of happiness are, by their very nature, highly uncertain, precarious, ephemeral, and subject to change.

Arthur Schopenhauer

There is nothing wrong with self-interest as such. We need to take care of our biological selves, make sure we have adequate food, water and shelter, avoid danger, take rest and ensure our other basic needs are met. Without this basic level of self-interest none of us would survive for very long.

Today, however, we in the more developed countries need to spend very little time and energy fulfilling these physical needs. If we are hungry or thirsty we simply go to the refrigerator, or we can get in our car and drive down to the supermarket -- in the middle of night in many cities. We have insulated ourselves from most of the dangers we are likely encounter in the wild, and provided ourselves with shelters whose level of comfort is way beyond that enjoyed by kings and queens two hundred years ago. If we are still not happy it is not because we lack some physical need; it is almost certainly because of some inner hunger. We are lacking for approval, security, status, power, affection, or some other psychological need.

This where the memes come into play. We have been conditioned since birth with the belief that satisfaction of these inner needs comes through our interaction with the world. We seek inner fulfillment through what we have or what we do, through the experiences the world provides, and through the way others behave towards us. This is the meme that governs so much of our thinking and behavior; the meme that says whether or not we are content with life depends upon what we have and what we do. .

Prevalent as this meme may be, it seldom provides any lasting satisfaction. A person may gather a great deal of wealth, but is he really more secure? More than likely he will soon find new sources of insecurity. Are my investments safe? Will the stock-market crash? Can I trust my friends? Should I employ “security” companies to protect my possessions?

Someone else, seeking fulfillment through sensory stimulation, may find a restaurant with the most exquisite cooking. Does that satisfy her? Or come the next day is she wondering when she might repeat the experience?

Another may seek fame in order to be approved and accepted. Is he then happy? Or is he upset at having lost the love of his family, or no longer deriving any satisfaction from his work?

Others may believe that if only they could find the right relationship they would be fulfilled. They continually look around for the perfect person, the person who satisfies their expectations; the person who will satisfy their inner needs and so make them happy. Yet such fulfillment can be short-lived. It usually is not be long before we start finding imperfections in even the most perfect person.

Part of the problem is that we are looking for fulfillment in a world that is constantly changing -- and changing ever more rapidly. Stock-markets go up and down, cars get damaged, fashions come and go, friends change their minds. Consequently, any satisfaction we do gain is likely to be impermanent.

There is, however, a more fundamental reason why this approach does not work. We are responding to our mental needs as if they were bodily needs -- as if their cause lay in the world around us. While our bodily needs are a symptom of some physical lack -- a lack of food or heat, perhaps -- the same is not true of our psychological needs. Most of the time the cause is in our minds. We feel insecure because we imagine misfortunes that might befall us in the future. Or we feel low self-esteem because we tell ourselves that we are not able to live up to some ideal that we have set ourselves. There may well be physical causes for our concern -- events may not turn out as we would wish, we may not be achieving our goals -- but, as we shall see later, the reason that we feel insecure, unworthy, or whatever, is as much a result of how we interpret and judge events as it is a result of the events themselves.

Most of the time we forget that our inner needs have an inner cause. We perceive other people or external circumstance to be the root of our discomfort, and respond as we would to a physical lack -- by making adjustments to the physical world. But this only deals with part of the problem. The inner lack continues, and soon reappears in some other guise.

Survival of the Self

The same is true of our need for identity. Most of us derive a sense of self from our experience and interaction with the world. We identify with our personality and our character; with our social status and our job; with our body and our gender; with our nationality, our name, our family; with our beliefs, our education, our interests, our clothes -- and even sometimes our car!

Such an identity is forever vulnerable. It has no permanent foundation, and is continually at the mercy of events in the world around. Before long we find ourselves needing to reassert our sense of self and re-establish who we are, leading to many unnecessary and often undesirable behaviors. Some worry about how they look. Others feel they must constantly defend their characters. We may feel insulted if someone forgets our name. We may be proud of our education, and like others to be aware of it. Some of us may argue for hours defending our beliefs. Others say things they do not believe in order to get attention. We may buy expensive or fashionable clothes, not because we need them, but because they have become part of who we are. And, if someone damages our car -- or even insults it -- we may not always respond as you might expect a rational, intelligent being to respond.

If this were as far as it went, such behavior would be fairly innocuous. But its consequences spread out into our surroundings. Moreover, when augmented by our technology, the repercussions can be very damaging indeed.

The Amplification of Error

Technology amplifies the power inherent in the human hand, and thus amplifies our ability to change the world according to our desires. In the service of our physical needs, this has been of great benefit. It gave us plows, irrigation, housing, sanitation, medicine and heating . But in the service of our inner needs it has been far from beneficial. Unconsciously assuming that these needs can also be satisfied by changing the world around, we have applied our creative energies and our technologies to the search for more and more powerful ways of getting what we think we want. As a result technology has not only amplified our power to change the world, it has also amplified the error in our thinking. And with potentially disastrous consequences.

It is the demands we make of the world in our relentless search for inner fulfillment that lead us to consume far more than we physically need. No other species consumes more than it needs. This is because no other species has our inner needs, or the means to amplify the demands they create. It is this combination that is causing us to suck the earth dry.

Seen in this light, the nuclear threat, the greenhouse effect, the destruction of the rainforests, the wide-scale extinction of species, acid rain, soil erosion, the depletion of the ozone layer, the problem of atomic waste, pollution, the energy crisis, the North-South crisis, the economic crisis, the food crisis, the water crisis, the housing crisis, the sanitation crisis, and the many other crises that humanity faces are all symptoms of a deeper psychological crisis.

The real crisis is in our thinking, in our perception of what it is we really want, and how to set about getting it.

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