Is there a difference between unselfishness and love, or are they one in the same thing? Let's take a deeper look at this question.
Unselfishness and Love Are the Same, or Not
We all know selfishness when we see it. Someone who is selfish is focused on him or herself. For example, we, in our society, would call a person selfish who is capable of working but spends his days lazily sitting in front of his television eating potato chips while receiving government assistance. We would probably also call a person selfish if he decided to withhold his usual $30 from the offering plate on Sunday mornings to buy a new fishing pole.
I think the vast majority of people in our society would agree that the behavior exhibited in these two examples is selfish. But not all cases are this easy to determine. Let’s say Bob is Joe’s client and Bob mentions to Joe that he’d really like to go perch fishing on Lake Erie sometime. Joe happens to own a boat and knows where and how to catch perch. Would it be selfish of Joe to offer to take Bob fishing on his boat with him? The action doesn’t seem to be enough information to determine whether Joe is being selfish. Instead, we need to determine the motive behind the action in order to determine whether it’s selfish. If Joe offers for Bob to go with him because he likes Bob and merely wants to do something nice for him, then we’d say it’s probably not selfish. But if Joe offers Bob a chance to go fishing with him because he expects to get more of Bob’s business, then we’d probably conclude that it is selfish.
In all of these examples, whether an action is selfish or unselfish seems to be derived from whether a benefit is expected as a return on the investment. If Joe offers Bob the opportunity to go fishing because he expects more business from him in return, then we would deem the action selfish since Joe is expecting to get something in return. But if Joe offers Bob the opportunity to go fishing simply because he wants to do something nice for Bob, then we would deem the action to be unselfish because he had no expectation of receiving anything in return.
Based on my observations, I would conclude that most people in our society would equate doing something without expecting anything in return with love. As a result, we could substitute the word “love” for the word “unselfishness.” We could then say that Joe is demonstrating love (not in a weird way) to Bob by offering him the opportunity to go fishing with him on his boat if he does it without expecting to receive anything in return.
At this point, we may think we have answered the question: unselfishness and love are the same. According to our society, the most loving act is the most unselfish act and the most unselfish act is the most loving act. But I don’t think we are quite done answering the question because unselfish love poses a rather large practical challenge which cannot be solved within this idealistic framework.
The Problem with Unselfish Love
Let’s say I wanted to be the most unselfish, and therefore the most loving, person to ever live on earth. In order to be completely unselfish and loving, I would have to do everything without expecting anything in return. I would have to invite people over for dinner without expecting them to return the favor. I would have to give money to homeless people without expecting them to repay me. I would have to cook dinner for my wife, Amy, and watch chick-flicks with her without expecting to receive anything in return. These three examples all make sense and sound doable.
But what would happen if I treated every aspect of my life that way? I would have to pour my money, time, and energy into my friends’ lives without expecting anything in return. I would have to go to work every day without expecting to receive a paycheck in return. I would have to invest my money without expecting anything in return. I don’t know anyone who would willingly give in these ways without expecting anything in return. In an ideal world, living out this type of unselfish love is the epitome of the life most of us desire to live. But it practically doesn’t make sense. It’s impractical to always give and never receive.
Do you have needs? I know I do. I have lots of needs. I have a need for food. I have a need for water. I have a need for sleep. I have a need for relational intimacy. If I were to live completely unselfishly/loving, then I would have to do what I do without expecting any of these needs to be met. If you’ve ever lived with one of these needs going unmet, then you realize how dysfunctional you become. For example, let’s say I didn’t eat for a few weeks because I decided I was only going to behave unselfishly. To dedicate time in my schedule to eating would be selfish because I would be doing it in expectation that I would receive benefit from it. As a result of not eating, I would probably starve to death, meaning that I wouldn’t be able to love anybody anymore because I’d be dead! How loving is that?
The conclusion we may draw at this point is that there are certain “selfish” actions which are acceptable and necessary because they allow us to be unselfish the rest of the time. But this raises another dilemma: Where is the line drawn? Which “selfish” actions are acceptable under which circumstances and which ones aren’t? I can see it right now: We could develop a list a mile long describing whether a given action is selfish or unselfish based on the situation. And then we could spend the rest of our lives trying to memorize the list so that we can make ourselves into unselfish people.
Thankfully, I’ve discovered a much better way to live than creating long lists of acceptable and unacceptable actions based on an infinite number of life situations. But unfortunately for you, you’re going to have to wait until next week to find out what it is.