“Power is the ability not to have to please” ~ selfishness versus selflessness
A few years ago I bought a small pendant shaped like a stylised goddess figure to hang from a leather thong; on the reverse it said, “Power is the ability not to have to please.” It was a kind of motto for me for what proved to be a very tricky year at work, and I wore the pendant under my shirt most days to remind me that I could do what I was paid to do and that I didn’t have to try to please people I worked with or for. It was oddly liberating to be able to tell myself that I didn’t need to go the extra mile just to try and please people. It didn’t matter if I pleased them or not.
The need for approval is something that unconsciously drives a lot of people and it can be what motivates many to do things. For many people there comes a partial awakening to this need and it seems to go through various stages. At first, you realise, as I did, that the need to please is a powerful force that can make you do things for that reason alone. Analysing it further, you begin to see that this need is rooted in a desire for love and acceptance. So you wake up to see that your actions are based on a form of placating others: if I do this for them, they will love and accept me.
There is a form of transaction going on, unseen and unobserved. We notice it most at gift giving times like Christmas. I’ve watched over the years how people will often be upset when a gift is not met by a reciprocating gift. Indeed, within ancient Celtic society, a gift HAD to be met by a gift in return; many legends have this as a central driving force. This form of reciprocal transaction is what underpins both relationships and economies of nations.
Being aware of this tends to affect people in different ways. It’s easy to start exploiting it, by playing the game of “You scratch my back I’ll scratch yours”. You see it everywhere on social media and among communities online and offline. It’s not intrinsically wrong but it can become a form of tribalism, of forming exclusive cliques. Tightly knit groups will turf out a member who fails to reciprocate in the exchange of energies(whether real or virtual)
Some people when they realise that they are drive by a need for approval respond by deciding they will only do what they WANT to do and to benefit themselves only, regardless of whether this hurts others. I’ve heard someone tell me, “It’s time to be selfish and I don’t care what anyone thinks of me for it.” The resulting actions caused quite a lot of hurt.
To be able to step back and weigh our actions in the light of probable results is a difficult thing to do, because we are guessing at outcomes. Sometimes we have to make decisions that will hurt others, but not caring that you will hurt another is not the way forward. It is inevitable that some of our decisions will displease others, even cause them serious harm at times. But not caring? That is the ultimate selfishness. “Me first” might take you to the top quickly, but as has been seen many times, if you use others as a stepladder to get to the top, then expect little or no help when you come down again. Human beings are primitive, unenlightened creatures when hurt; and we like to see people get what we feel they deserve. There is very little sympathy for high profile people who have used and abused others, when they are finally outed and put on trial either by a court or by the media.
But that little pendant holds more. The words can be read another way. Power comes when I know I don’t have to please someone but also when I choose to do so knowing that I am at liberty not to. To choose to help someone who has no means of reciprocating is a massive step forward into unselfishness. To please someone for nothing more than the satisfaction of making them happier for one small moment, with no thought that they may one day return the favour, is real power. It’s real power because it takes the very human need for approval and makes it into something almost divine.
To give with no thought of a return, simply because it is the right thing to do, lifts us from our grubby selfishness, makes us better people and when more people start behaving this way, it makes a better society all round. But how do you deal with the people who chose a life of selfishness, who prefer to look after number one at the expense of others? Perhaps the first step is accepting that anything you might do for them is not even going to earn you thanks. It may well earn you a kick in the teeth in some form: you’ve held up a mirror to them and they don’t like what they see. It’s your choice then whether you step back and leave them to it. It’s not easy if they are a family member or a close friend, because you are bound to them by love. But love sometimes has to say no, and leave them to it.
Living selfishly may get you what YOU want but it’s the Dead Sea Fruit when you get it and turns to ashes in your mouth. Living selflessly may get us ALL much further.