Self-Preservation vs. Self-Interest

Over the years, one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to grips with is the idea that some people intentionally do bad things, knowing those things will cause great damage, and then walk away without a hint of remorse or whiff of accountability.

That might seem naïve that it’s taken me 30+ years to realize this, but understand that as cynical as I can seem sometimes, more often than not, I’m an idealist. And because I know how convicted I am about my own actions and how they affect others, I often find myself presuming that everyone else – deep down inside – is being eaten alive by the same gnawing conviction and guilt that would eat at me when I’ve wronged someone or caused great pain or harm. It’s taken a lot of life and some pretty bad personal experiences for me to realize that my approach is not only in the minority, most people think it’s weird.

Not weird like “creepy,” but weird like “Why would you do that?” weird. Weird like “If you don’t have to feel bad, why would you choose to feel bad?” weird. And I get it. Self-interest is practically the only universal language on this planet. And self-interest is often interpreted as shielding oneself from the most unpleasant aspects of life, even when some of those aspects of life are simply personal accountability for our own actions.

Case in point: in college, I really hurt someone. I hurt them bad. I did so fully aware that what I was doing could hurt them, yet I chose to do it anyways. When, inevitably, my transgression came to light, I had a choice: I could have simply chalked up my relationship with that person as a loss, kept it moving, and minimize how bad I felt about my own actions by avoiding this person – and their justified ire – all together or I could be honest with myself, own my mistake and, in so doing, absorb whatever the consequences of my actions would be, pleasantness notwithstanding. In the latter scenario, it didn’t mean I would LIKE the consequences, but it meant that if I was being fair and honest, I deserved them and had no legitimate reason – outside of perhaps self-preservation and my own selfishness – to think I shouldn’t have to confront those consequences.

And confront them I did. This person laced into me for weeks. Gave me the business end of the most intense anger I’ve ever seen before. Called me every name in the book. Threw things at me, dismissed me, blocked me, unblocked me to yell at me, then blocked me again. I don’t believe I’ve been yelled at quite as much as they did to me then ever since. And you know what? I deserved it. I did the thing. How selfish could I be to do the thing and then walk away from the consequences, leaving an undeserving person to pick up the pieces of their own heart and emotions alone, wondering what they did to deserve such cruelty? I don’t have that trait – and that’s not a brag, it’s simply a statement of observation after years of both feeling the sting of those who abandon the damage they’ve left behind and having caused pain and being unable to live with myself by merely walking away. Try as I might, I can’t detach myself from doing better, because as the old adage goes, I know better. I just do. So when I was confronted with unpleasantness & hostility, I didn’t view it through the lens of whether I wanted to sit through it or not; I saw it from the perspective of fairness and through the lens of my own personal ethics: how could I live with myself to know I knowingly did a thing that hurt someone and I’m not even man enough to take my lumps for doing it? Moreover, how cruel would it be to hurt someone for my own benefit only to hurt them further by giving them no sense of closure or understanding? It would be selfishness on top of selfishness – defined by an almost unimaginable absence of empathy.

We tell ourselves stories about our own good intentions that may be contrary to our actions to make it easier to live with ourselves. I understand the value of that relative to self-interest, but I question the morality. I question the character of people who only see the world through the lenses of good for them and bad for them because the world simply doesn’t operate on that kind of axis. Sometimes, the right thing to do is not always in your best interest. That doesn’t make it any less right. And sometimes, the things that seem most in your interest are simply morally and ethically wrong. If you only see the world through the lens of self-interest, inevitably, you will do evil, cruel things and not even recognize them for what they are.

But even in expressing that sentiment, I think it belies my best and worst characteristic: I struggle to wrap my mind around the idea that knowing something is evil, knowing something is cruel – knowing something is wrong – one might still do it anyways, consequences be damned. Try as I might, I struggle to accept that some people, despite their reputations, are simply bad people who do bad things in the name of self-interest. I always find myself willing to keep the door at least slightly ajar so that the core decency I tend to believe must exist somewhere in everyone can manifest itself when, inevitably, the conviction of righteousness pulls at them.

As a college undergrad at Louisiana Tech University studying political science, I remember learning about the philosophical debate between those who adhered to the presumptions of Thomas Hobbes, who famously wrote that human nature is “solitary, poore, nasty brutish, and short,” versus those who accepted the premise of Jean-Jacques Rousseau a century later, who countered that human nature is essentially good. While in college, intellectually, I may have identified with a more Hobbesian approach, in practice, I have certainly been more an adherent to Rousseau’s perspective. To my detriment, I might add.

Today, I learned that I have been wrong. Some people do bad things knowing they are bad and do them anyways. Some people hurt people, knowing the severity of the pain they are causing, and do so anyways. Some people simply care about themselves so much that they don’t care if what they’re doing is good or bad, they simply care that what they’re doing is good for them.

You might read that and think, “Damn Q, it took you this long to realize that?” And the answer is yes. Call me naive, call me gullible, I’ll own both. But I was simply raised to understand that sometimes, people do bad things because their worldview may be manipulated – they may feel they had no other choice, or felt afraid, or threatened, or confused. And I have always felt it my responsibility to take that human margin of error into account. I often am too understanding and empathetic for my own good, availing myself to broken souls and manipulative intent all the same, often hurting myself in the process.

But that’s just it. Sometimes, it is me that hurts myself, walking into situations I know are unlikely to result in positive outcomes for myself, but trudging ahead nonetheless because I believe in the power of redemption and people’s ability to surprise you. But sometimes, people do bad things, cause great damage, and then walk away without a hint of remorse or whiff of accountability. And in those situations, while in the past I may have blamed myself for my own heartache and consternation, I must be willing to accept that their actions sometimes are quite intentional, with the goal being to cause pain, and with the only beneficiary being they themselves, all other peripheral characters be damned. It’s not my job to understand them, nor is it fair to me to give them unlimited space to eventually make right what they did wrong. It’s not cutthroat to recognize that some people don’t seek redemption or even empathy. They take advantage of it. And while I may never be a creature of complete self-interest, there is value in knowing the difference between that and self-preservation.

Today, I think I learned that distinction.


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