Everybody Else’s Biggest Problem: The Island of Me

Welcome to the sixth installment of act two of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s […]

Mockingbird / 3.22.16

Welcome to the sixth installment of act two of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s biggest problem but your own. If you missed one or more of the previous installments, the entire series can be found here.


After establishing in Act One of this series that we as a society cannot agree on a collectively applicable definition of greed, we are now exploring a half dozen answers to the question Why.

So … once again … why can’t we define greed? Because we are living in an era of the self, only the self matters, discovering and nourishing it are paramount and accumulating lots of money and stuff is an intrinsically selfish action, always accomplished at the expense of others, so it cannot be greed.

Selfishness and greed are often uttered in the same breath; the concepts frequently share the same headline. But in the long course of my research I have never encountered a person who defines greed as selfishness. No one has ever equated the two concepts. Why is that? We’ll examine two explanations today.

First, I suggest that self-centeredness underpins just about all human vices, frailties and sins. Putting the desires of the self ahead of others’ needs is foundational to nearly all the horrible things we humans do to each other – and ourselves. It transcends greed, it consumes greed, it therefore is not greed.

Second, ostensibly we view “selfishness” as a supremely negative trait. As Dr. Stephen Diamond writes in Psychology Today, “most of us are taught from childhood that selfishness is sinful, bad or evil.” Certainly, parents reflexively encourage generous sharing, not selfish hording. And if a friend says to you “you’re selfish!” you are unlikely to thank her for the compliment. No surprise then, as we learned with greed, we are quick to pin the “selfish” label on others but not so often on ourselves.

In 2015, a Pew Research poll revealed that 68% of us “say the term ‘selfish’ applies to the typical American.” In 2014, a Reason-Rupe survey found that 71% of adults believe millennials (ages 18-29) are selfish. (Remarkably, the exact same percentage of millennials, 71%, agreed. The youngsters may be entitled, lazy and self-absorbed – if you believe the media – but apparently they’re also self-aware.) In an article titled “I’m O.K., You’re Selfish,” The New York Times Magazine reported “only 17 percent say they are overly concerned about themselves but 60 percent think that most people are overly concerned about themselves.”


As you’d expect, as selfishness increases, so does narcissism. Just last month, The New York Times discussed a study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science that found “the percentage of college students exhibiting narcissistic personality traits…increased by more than half since the early 1980s, to 30 percent.” Apart from the obvious reasons, why do we care? “Overwhelming evidence links narcissism with lower honesty and raised aggression.” That’s right: Your annoying, eye-rolling, Instagram-addicted intern is lying to you and wants to beat you up.

Finally, my own survey of friends, colleagues, friends-of-friends and the Twitterverse yielded remarkably consistent data: 70% of us say “selfish” describes the average American. Only 30% say it describes us. We’re not greedy. We’re not selfish. The other guy is.

But, really, can you blame us for desperately perpetuating the charade? Our culture constantly bombards us with self-help pablum that encourages us to focus on the self, to be self-centered, to mindfully unearth and explode upon the world our authentic selves. “The booming self-help industry, not to mention the cash cow of New Age spirituality, has one message: be authentic!” The Times noted in 2013.

Feelings are preeminent, and as psychiatrist Robert Shulman recently told CBS News, “people act upon feelings, and sometimes selfish acts are what feel good.” (Dr. Shulman concluded “that most people don’t even realize how selfish they are.”) Indeed, a Times poll of American adults found that “communicating our feelings is very important to 78 percent; only 28 percent think it very important to have a lot of friends.”

But before we can communicate and act on our feelings we must – what? – you guessed it, listen to ourselves. Dr. Diamond teaches us to listen “to [our] inner thoughts, feelings, impulses, perceptions and needs … once the Self has been encountered and spoken, it becomes our responsibility to discerningly obey its requests.”

Ponder for a moment the implications drawn from these era-defining revelations. The syllogism is unavoidable. We have a responsibility to listen to our feelings. Selfish acts are what feel good. We have a responsibility to act selfishly.

“At the heart of the ethic of authenticity is a profound selfishness and callous disregard for others,” wrote authors Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster in a Times article titled “The Gospel According to Me.”


Data suggest we are indeed listening. In 1994, the Baltimore Sun exposed a disturbing trend that common sense suggests has only intensified: “57 percent of Americans said they had a responsibility to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves, down from 69 percent in 1992 and 71 percent in 1987.” Imagine where that number rests today, in our social media-obsessed culture increasingly addicted to abdicating our own personal responsibility to an almost mythic ethos demanding others’ “personal responsibility” or, often with worse results, abdicating our personal responsibility to care for others to government.

And what are we told we gain by helping ourselves? Recall the gospel according to Oprah, quoted in My Needs, Your Greeds: “I had no idea that being your authentic self could make me as rich as I’ve become. If I had, I’d have done it a lot earlier.”

Rich. There it is, stark and, in this context, personally mortifying. Thinking about it, I feel like instead of lobbing a grenade at the other guy, I dropped it at my feet. Boil off the slogans, the mantras, the daily “I’m the best!” memes, and the feel-good navel-gazing, and what remains is what we ourselves ultimately want to gain: Money, and the stuff money can buy. But can we please wrap our pecuniary nombrilisme in something that makes it a tad more palatable? Sure! In Psychology Today, Dr. Diamond says “honoring the true self…is essential to emotional and spiritual well-being.” Nice!

But hold on. There’s much, much more. In her 2015 book Unleash Your Authentic Self!, Elaine McGuinness writes:

You can set yourself free from your struggles and pain in life by expressing your authentic self … Expressing your authentic self gives you the freedom to co-create your life with the universe according to what you desire … you forge a path for yourself with limitless opportunities, abundance, and prosperity … In expressing your authentic self, you free yourself to experience the abundance and prosperity in life that were always your birthright. Your freedom to manifest abundance in your life comes through being aligned with your authentic self.

Good grief, how can we not jump on the beguiling authentic self bandwagon? We get to co-create our desired life with the universe – how cool is that?!? – and freely score limitless abundance and prosperity all the while avoiding life’s struggles and pain. As a bonus, it’s essential to our spiritual and emotional well-being. Selfishness can’t be greed; it makes Oprah smile. “In the gospel of authenticity,” Critchley and Webster write, “well-being has become the primary goal of human life … an end in itself … that doesn’t really require a belief in anything.”

Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Dali (1937)

That’s helpful too, right? As we voraciously empower ourselves in an authentic way that maximizes our desired prosperity and abundance, we need not be bogged down with any inkling of dogma or non-aligning feelings of selflessness, guilt or shame. Living out “The Gospel According to Me” puts us blissfully barefoot on a yoga pant-clad path to meditative tranquility:

In a seemingly meaningless, inauthentic world awash in nonstop media reports of war, violence and inequality, we close our eyes and turn ourselves into islands. We may even say a little prayer to an obscure but benign Eastern goddess and feel some weak spiritual energy connecting everything as we listen to some tastefully selected ambient music.

Alone on the Island of Me. That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? It’s all about me, my feelings, my comfort, my impulses, my needs as an individual. Me.

But aggressive individualism is certainly not new in our society. As Americans, it is ingrained in our history, our “birthright,” our collective manifest destiny to be rugged individuals. It is our patriotic duty to be prosperous, self-satisfying consumers. That’s not news. That can’t be greed. That’s America.

Today’s unprecedented levels of selfishness and narcissism are, however, new. Why? What’s going on? Why has our celebrated and spirited individualism taken an ugly and destructive turn? What allows us to gaze at our navels while a family across town gazes at an empty refrigerator?

Join me in Act Three of this greed drama as we tackle these questions and explore what developments over the past decades have deceived us into this dystopian dilemma.