The other day I went to the water store and there were two people ahead of me. Each of them had multiple gallons to fill up and there was only one spigot. At this point I was already feeling angry because that is one of my pet peeves – people who bring lots of empty jugs when there’s people behind them.
Since the coronavirus pandemic there is less to do and I wouldn’t have minded waiting, but the selfishness of these two people was really bothering me. That, and I had planned to meet a friend and my time was running short. The woman had five jugs and was putting in her paper money and the machine was raining down coins as if it was Las Vegas. At first, I didn’t notice the man who was waiting, so I confirmed with him that he was ahead of me. He said he only had two jugs. The woman was taking forever which always seems to happen when you are in a hurry, so I asked the man if I could go ahead of him since I only had one jug. He said I had to wait my turn the way we all do.
Let me explain something that you might have figured out already but here goes anyway: It’s not just the number of jugs it’s also the size that matters. My water jug was 2-gallons, hers were 2 -gallons and his were 5-gallons. So, they each had 10 gallons which was going to take at least 10-15 minutes to fill whereas mine would take only about 2-3 minutes. Another thing to consider is the possibility of an earthquake or other emergency that could preclude you from going to the water store. Why would anyone wait until ALL of their water jugs were empty and then possibly get stuck with no emergency supply?
I left without getting the water because I didn’t want to keep my friend waiting. I was going to give her a cloth mask I had bought for her. This is what we give each other now – masks! I lamented the selfishness of my fellow human beings. What makes people so selfish? It’s called egoism or self-interest, which is necessary for survival. Egoism is the opposite of altruism, which is the concern for others without regard to one’s self-interest. All humans and animals have the capacity for egoism and altruism. We see it in the news every day where people are delivering meals to those who cannot get food during the pandemic lockdown, and we see it where a young woman who has a cart full of 20-roll packages of toilet paper is brawling with an old woman to take away her 4-rolls.
How do we become selfish? It is probably something innate in us, tied to the “pleasure principle” first explained by Sigmund Freud when he delineated the id-ego-superego structure of our personality (seeking pleasure is associated with the “id” – considered the deepest part of our subconscious). We all instinctively want to experience pleasure and avoid pain. But, obviously, we are also motivated to care for one another and can help others in a cooperative and selfless way. Society and culture need altruism to survive just as individuals need selfishness to survive. All the major world religions (and many of the minor ones) have tenets associated with kindness and charity toward others. It is the better part of our nature and counteracts the selfishness that causes so much destruction.
How do we overcome selfishness that is harmful? I recommend that we spend some time being mindful of the ways we experience knee-jerk, selfish reactions. These usually happen when we feel threatened, and the COVID-19 epidemic certainly has had that effect. Mindfulness is focusing on the present and being aware or conscious of what you are thinking and doing. Ask yourself what is upsetting you right now and is there another way you can react that is positive and helpful? I also recommend doing the yoga breathing that is so beneficial to reducing stress because goodness knows, we are experiencing plenty of that now. The way to do it is to inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds. It took me a while to build-up to the 7 seconds, but I use it when I’m trying to relax, when I’m watching TV and when I go to bed and it really works!
And the next time I go to the water store I’m going to take a whole bunch of jugs and, if I see those two selfish people, I’ll take all the empty jugs out and stand in front of them and ask them how they like it.
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Yasmin Attar, PhD, is a social scientist and former professor of psychology. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.