debunking the myth of selfishness

You’ve heard it before:  A kind or beneficent act is, at root, a selfish one, because it makes the benefactor feel good.  That there is no such thing as benevolence or altruism, because ultimately all acts are in one’s self-interest.  To help an old lady cross the street makes you feel good, ergo, it is an act really done to serve yourself.

The problem is that the word “selfish” or the term “self-interest” are the same language symbols used to describe someone who hordes all the cake, or doesn’t pay attention to their kids or spouse.  You may have a friend you consider “selfish,” who buys tons of clothes and treats themselves to the spa every week.  You may consider a corporation selfish, acting to serve its shareholders and not the public good.  Selfish becomes synonymous with greed, neglect, and a whole host of other terms which signify bad or immoral behaviour.

Yet, the “self” in selfishness is an illusion.  You were not born to your “self,” you were created by two parents.  You are not autogenerating; you require food, sunlight, air, and people in order to live, and to live healthy.  You consult with friends, you see your doctor, you listen to the news and read literature and watch television.  You are a compendium of what you’ve absorbed your whole life, from your early developmental years to the last thing you ate or read online.  Even your gifts and your talents are not yours to lay claim to, anymore than you can take credit for having brown eyes, being female, having two arms.  You are a co-creator of your being; your “self” is an inextricable part of a larger whole.

All acts are indeed “selfish.”  At base, you seek to preserve yourself.  You eat food and drink water and live under a roof to protect you.  You have friends and keep ties with family because you need people to support you, challenge you, and help you grow.  The influences in your life are more than just influence; they co-create you.  There is even some discussion in the neuroscience community whether it is even possible to have a truly self-generated thought, or to really be in control of your own fate.  Suffice it to say, what you do is in the multi interest of you and the people who surround you.  The father who still controls you or the partner you may want to please, the friends you may be competing with, or, yes, that little old lady you truly just want to make sure gets across the road without upending any mack trucks.

It is all both selfish and multiish.  The difference is simply whether what is working with you and through you is healthy or not, beneficent or not.  The person who has five apples may keep all five apples to him or her self.  The person who gives four apples away to four individuals is perhaps more healthy than the former.  But what if that person who keeps all five apples really needs them?  What if there is something psychologically or physiologically driving them?  They may need to work through it.  The neglectful parent may need help to get out the stain caused by their own neglectful parents.  The person who seems self-indulgent in all creature comforts may be compensating for something.  It is rare to see someone acting in a selfish way which only seems to benefit them as behavior which is coming from a healthy place.

However, to pursue your passion to the utmost, when it at times gets you branded “selfish” – is this such a bad thing?  In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the author shows us through painstaking illustration that a person truly indulgent in their dreams, their passions, their gifts, ultimately serves the world anyway.  She shows, too, that the person who tries to do what others seem to want and to fit in and be lauded by the community can go far astray, and end up confused and betrayed.  This model – pursuing one’s highest potential as top priority as doing the most for the collective – only works, really, when that individual is coming from a healthy place.  Obviously a self-interested serial killer working out some issues is not going to be beneficial to the collective. 

What Rand misses in her wonderful epic novel and thinly concealed dissertation on her “Objectivism” philosophy is that the self, again, is not something truly autogenerative.  It is not autonomous.  Even Howard Stark, the hero of the story, is co-created by his upbringing, his school experience, and his deep psychological needs.  There is indeed something individual in him – his innate ability to design radical and beautiful structures – but this, too, is not exactly from the “self,” but given to him from the world, from the universe he was born out of.  Not born into, but born out of.  So as the ocean waves, humanity peoples.

We are trained to recognize distinction and individuation.  We are still, in many ways, animals with a herd mentality.  We are mammals – put us on a park bench and our eyes will flick around, catching movement.  We search for predators, and we evaluate friendlies.  Much of our thinking, according to many mental health professionals and spiritual advisors, is still rooted in the basic patterns we evolved for survival.  Negative thinking – the skepticism of other people and events, doubt of our own abilities – comes from much more primitive times when this kind of thinking was necessary for survival.

As a herd-type, we recognize distinction.  Distinction could mean trouble in the early days – an errant member of the herd could attract attention from predators.  Or, such a member could be entertaining, and could lead the way to greener pastures.  We have an emphasis on precociousness built in to our culture; we love young phenoms, be they in tennis, rock and roll, or politics.  The youth break patterns of conformity that can lead us to newer and more exciting things.  We celebrate the individual at every turn, awarding them especially for what they do that seems to come from the highest degree of selfishness or narcissism.  Soaking up the adulation of a million fans.  Beating out a sports competitor because they believe they are better – the best.  Getting into an old man’s game and beating the odds by being the youngest politician, when many may feel they lack the experience and wisdom.  Who the heck do these people think they are?  How selfish can they get?

Yet, behind each of them is a person, or people, who have pushed them into position, or at least nurtured and shaped the direction of their lives to help fructify their work.  Each tennis or golf phenomenon has a story about how an adult in their lives took them under their wing.  Stanley Kubrick’s and Tiger Wood’s fathers.  Rafael Nadal’s uncle.  A team of businessmen conjuring the careers of Brittany or Justin.  The phenoms are merely players in their own lives.  They are less selfish than they are multiish, the product of a market which demands them, advocates which lead them, and support which directs and fuels them.  They are radical examples, but each of us, really, have the same ingredients in our lives.  We each have someone championing us, we each have an area we think needs filling – or others think needs filling – and we step in.  We each are motivated by physical, psychological, and spiritual factors.

The word “selfish” is just not big enough to contain all of this, and so it gets a bad rap.  The word becomes associated with the connotations of greed, sloth, pride – all the seven deadly sins.  Then a few people who have a clever moment say, “Hey, even when you do good you are being selfish!”  Well, bully for you, to point that out for us.  Thing is, you’re only seeing about one sliver of the whole picture.  You’re forgetting that the self is a phantom, at best.  That what is happening in any instance is coming from some place good, or some place not so good, and channeling through the individual in the thousands streams of what makes them “them.”  Pouring in, from all directions.  Beaming into that person who, in turn, beams it back out again.


rise of the planet of the apes

The next day, still all I can see are the monkey’s green eyes.

“He’s an ape, not a monkey,” one of the lab scientists reminds Jacobs, the ruthlessly pragmatic CEO of GEN-SYS.

Right.  Apes.  As in Planet of the Apes.  As in “the rise of.”  How it all began.

It got me thinking about the lore.  About how if this movie hadn’t been a part of a larger context, what would it have been?  Likely a horror flick – you’ve seen them.  Psycho monkeys are administered some form of drug.  They’re infected with rage, some sort of neurotoxicity; they bash everything in sight with their arms flailing like meaty windsocks.  They bare their fangs.  In another movie, in different hands, this story would likely fail.  You wouldn’t care about the savage monkeys – they’d be the bad guy.  You wouldn’t care about the hapless scientists either – likely they’d be meddling with “powers they can’t comprehend” because, in a cookie-cutter movie, that’s what numbskull scientists do.  But not here.  Here you are transfixed – that ape’s eyes, Caesar’s eyes, they’re able to convey more depth and emotion than his human counterparts.

James Franco turns in just the right performance as Dr. Will Rodman.  It seems the actor and director were able to grasp that Franco is not the lead in the film, and even managed to dial down some of that star magnitude.  In his plain suits and white lab coat, Franco’s eyes are almost dull compared the Caesar the ape’s.  He is a bit hapless, yes, but he has to be.  Rodman is the scientist who tips over the jar and spills the plot into motion.  And he perpetuates this motion by a series of bad choices.  First is his overconfidence in the gene therapy drug ALZ-112, then his decision to illegally experiment on his father with it.  And for a brilliant scientist, he seems somewhat dim-witted when it comes to common sense – the fact that Caesar is going to grow up, to hit puberty, to need to flex his ape muscles, these things have to be pointed out to him by Caroline Aranha (played by Frieda Pinto, who is, through no fault of her own, often distracting with her attractiveness).  But Franco, aside from neurochemistry, is not supposed to be all that bright.  It’s not even his story anyway – it’s Caesar’s.  And that’s what the filmmakers have grasped, and that’s why it works.

The script, from Pierre Boulle, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver meticulously constructs  the world surrounding Caesar the way a screen story should.  There are set-ups and pay-offs galore, but none so glaring that they roll any eyes.  The craft at work is subtle – in one scene, Caesar uses the elm trees above a suburban street to move himself along, and in a later scene when those leaves start to rain to the ground, we know it’s because Caesar’s primate army is now marching.  In another, Caesar sees a dog on a leash and makes the connection to his own leash.  Later, when Franco returns to the animal-jail to retrieve him, Caesar looks at the leash Franco holds and turns away.

Finally, yes, the CGI is stunning.  The days when the seeds of computer animation first moaned in the ground to this full maturation of the technical art has been an undulating journey with highs and lows.  Here, though, those who’s purview it is to create an entire character and group of characters using the effects are at the top of their game.  It isn’t dinosaurs slicked with rain, head transplantation, or body dysmorphia, it’s a bare-bones group of simians, meant to look and act like the real deal – only smarter.

Without good story-telling, though, the best CGI is a padded bra at best.  Here, when an imprisoned and suffering Caesar signs through the cages with a captive orangutan, is the transcendent moment which endorses the rest of the film.  We are watching a story unfold about prisoners, about underdogs, about an uprising.  Maybe that’s because the director, Rupert Wyatt, both penned and helmed the critically acclaimed 2008 film The Escapist, about, you guessed it, a prison break.  In any case, we feel for Caesar – each of his emotions are expertly conveyed in his sculptured expressions: the down-turned mouth, the half-lidded eyes, the strength of his gaze.  Andy Serkis, who provided the motion capture for Golem in Lord of the Rings, brings Caesar’s gestures and body language to life.

Pervading all of this is a story very aware of itself, written by a trio of intelligent writers, and realized under Wyatt’s confident direction.  Devoid of gimmicks or even the slightest bit of hamminess, we are delivered a straight story, with only judicious use of the iconography we want from a legendary tale.  It’s all just enough to create an epic – or, to lend to an epic already standing, and to do it justice.


Viewed at The Palace Theatre in Lake Placid, Adirondacks, New York.