or: Selfishness vs. Self-Centeredness in Maintaining Friendships
Way back in October of 2008, I wrote an article titled Get Over Yourself!, or Selfishness vs. Self-Centeredness in Meeting New People. In that article, I contrasted the approaches of the rationally selfish man vs. the self-centered man in meeting new people. The selfish man, I explained, treats each new person as a potential value to be explored; while the self-centered man sees new people primarily as a potential receptacle for information about himself. The selfish man endeavors to make new people comfortable and asks them questions about their lives and interests; the self-centered man looks for opportunities to soliloquy about his own life and interests. The selfish man tends to make friends, influence people, nail the interview, and get the girl; the self-centered man comes across as arrogant and annoying.
Since the conflation of selfishness and self-centeredness is relatively common among Objectivists, I had always intended to follow-up on my 2008 article to further explore this widely misunderstood issue. And over a year later, it’s high time to do so. This time, I will contrast the approaches of the selfish vs. the self-centered man in maintaining friendships. I will conclude the series (ideally before 2011!) with a discussion of these principles in relation to long term romantic love relationships.
Long term friendships are among the most significant values one can attain in his lifetime. Their survival value is crucial in many ways, including: emotional support, psychological visibility, specializations in different hobbies and areas of knowledge (allowing one more effectively to expand his horizons), and as deep wells of spiritual fuel. So critical a value warrants special study, specifically how to gain and keep it. In the last article of this series, I discussed some methods of gaining and earning this value. This article will focus on how to keep it. So: how does the rationally self-interested man maintain friendships?
First, the selfish man acknowledges that long term friendships are indeed values which require maintenance. A friendship is not a static entity automatically formed and sustained given the existence of shared values. It requires work to create, build, and sustain. The selfish man understands this and looks for ways to build and nurture his friendships. The self-centered man does not understand this. He believes, in effect, that friendships spring into existence, grow in depth, fade away, or collapse into enmity -- all without action on his part. He does not consider ways in which he can build a friendship or contribute to its growth. He is often not even aware of the state of his own relationships: Are they healthy and thriving or sick and dying? He does not know, nor does he think it in his self-interest to care.
The selfish man places value on the individuating characteristics of his long term friends. By individuating characteristics, I mean those legitimate optional values (hobbies, interests, career, etc.) that make each man unique. Just as the selfish man initiates relationships by showing sincere interest and asking questions, so he continues to show interest and ask questions about his friends’ values throughout the life of a friendship. He does this even if he does not share those particular values. Such questions go a long way in adding depth to the relationship, even with regard to a friend’s minor hobbies.
For instance, I have no particular interest in World of Warcraft (WoW), but I have a good friend, Nancy, who absolutely loves it. When I talk to her on the phone, or visit her apartment, I often ask how her Blood Elf is doing, what new weapons the Elf has acquired, if she’s created any new characters, if she’s gotten into any new similar games, etc. And believe me, she can spend many happy hours waxing philosophical about WoW! This is a good example, because knowledge of WoW does not otherwise improve my life -- I don’t learn any special life lessons from these conversations. But I do gain a value from taking the time to talk to her about WoW: I am learning more about what makes this woman unique. Nancy would not be Nancy if she wasn’t a fanatic RPG enthusiast.
But her love of RPGs is only a small part of Nancy’s personality. With a friend’s more significant values, like career or children, it’s much more important to keep tabs on these things. For instance, I have no particular interest in the World of Wall St. (I don’t even read the Business section of the Newspaper), but my good friend Sherry has dedicated her life to it. She is a superstar in her field, and I am very proud to be her friend. But I would never have known how passionate she is, how competent a businesswoman, how brilliant her business acumen, had I not taken the time to talk to her about her work life. I take pleasure in hearing about the World of Wall St. from Sherry’s perspective. I share her elation when she closes an important business deal, and I share her pain when a client pulls out at the last minute. Gaining knowledge about the business world and her role in it serves to strengthen our relationship.
In a good friendship, these kinds of efforts are reciprocal. My close friends also take stake in my interests, my career, my field of study, etc. Most of them don’t regularly attend Slam poetry performances, but they are always interested to hear any new poems I write. They will often read my essays and comment on them. They will spring to my defense if I am wrongfully arrested. These efforts do not go unnoticed. These are the kinds of friends who contribute the spiritual fuel to keep me going. They actively love, encourage, and inspire me.
The self-centered man, by contrast, does not expend much effort to maintain his friendships. To him, “selfishness” means that any friendships ought to focus on his own interests, his own life, his own career. He is very happy to tell friends about his values, but he usually doesn’t take the time to ask about theirs. He will tolerate friends telling him about their lives, but learning about them is not a primary objective to him. He doesn’t seek out friends whose interests differ from his own; he has no desire to broaden his horizons. Instead, he thinks that friendships ought to focus on “shared interests,” i.e., on interests he already has. He may ask Nancy about her Blood Elf in World of Warcraft, but only if he is already an RPG fan. And even then, his inquiry is usually only an excuse to pontificate on the virtues of his own Orc Beserker.
With regards to emotional support, again the rationally selfish man makes a point to contribute to the emotional health of his friends. He maintains an awareness of his friends’ emotional states, and can usually tell if they are proud or discouraged, joyous or depressed. Just as he relishes in sharing his friends’ triumphs, so he gladly shoulders their pain in difficult times.
For instance, I often talk to my friends about their romantic lives. I can often tell when a friend is unhappy with his current romantic relationship, even before the friend recognizes it himself. This is not at all uncommon. The outside perspective of a good friend can be invaluable in helping one understand relationship issues. But this kind of understanding does not come automatically. It is only because I take interest in my friends’ love lives that I am able to provide appropriate emotional support and friendly advice. I can share their hopeful excitement when love begins to bloom, and offer sympathy when a promising relationship disintegrates. I look for opportunities to be there for my friends, to hear their stories, to take part in their emotional lives.
But to the self-centered man, taking stake in his friends’ emotional lives seems sacrificial or altruistic. He acknowledges that sharing his own emotional pain with a friend can have a positive cathartic effect, and he may lean on them in difficult times. But when roles are reversed, he would rather not endure a friend’s tears over some heartache which he does not share. Why put a bummer on an otherwise pleasant day? The self-centered man may be happy to share in his friend’s triumphs at work, particularly if he shares an interest in his friend’s profession. But when sorrow strikes, he prefers to keep his distance. He is the classic fair-weather friend.
I don’t need to tell you which kind of person, the selfish man or the self-centered man, makes a better friend. Everyone has at some point been exposed to both types, and anyone could tell you that the rationally self-interested man makes the better business partner, the better lover, and overall the better person to have in one’s life. We seek out those who not only share our moral values, but who also take sincere interest in our individuating characteristics. Most of us tend to avoid those who take the self-centered approach, those who take interest only in those aspects of one’s personality that he already shares. We seek out friends who relish sharing in both our joys and pains, and we eschew those for whom emotional support is a one-way street. The selfish man is the kind of life-long friend who can become like a family member. The self-centered man usually doesn’t rise above the status of “temporary activity partner.”
Over time, long term friendships can grow into some of the highest values in one’s life. Whether one acknowledges it or not, we need deep friendships; they have a survival value which is difficult to quantify. In theory, it is easy to make the mistake that being independent means that one doesn’t need friends. In some respects, this is true. One ought not need anyone else to provide him with epistemological certainty, productive independence, or self-esteem. But friendships -- and to a greater degree romantic relationships -- so enrich our lives that they deserve a high degree of focus, consideration, and sustained effort.
In part III of this series, which I hope to publish with a few weeks, I will apply these same principles to romantic love relationships. How does the rationally self-interested man treat his lover at home, in the bedroom, with family, and in public? How does the self-centered man act in these situations? Which type of man makes a better lover, and why?
As always, thanks for reading, and I look forward to any comments!