A man is sitting across from me, shaken and fearful. He wants to ask me a question, but he is afraid of what my answer will be; he is worried there will be no magic in my words. I assure him I will give him the answer that was once given to me, and I am neither fearful nor shaken. I ask him why he came to me in the first place, and he responds, “Because I want what you have.” He knew he would have to ask and out came three simple, usual questions: “When is it going to start working? How is this life going to lead me where I want to go? Why am I not seeing the results?” His questions may not seem commonplace to you at first, but look closer. They are riddled with selfishness and self-centered fear; they are focused directly on his life and his problems. Leaving no room for anything but his selfish ends he finds himself stuck, unable to see the change that is occurring.
I am a selfish man. It is an elaborate selfishness, perhaps not noticeable to everyone, but it is there, and it is healthy. I want more attention, more acknowledgment, more assurance. I want you to feel better because of something I have done; I want to be the one who pulled you from the fire.
I don’t always feel this way, and in fact, it is rare these days that I act on such feelings. I have moments where I don’t feel like people notice me, moments when I want to shower in the warmth of compliments and admiration, but they are altogether few and far between and not nearly as impactful as they once were. Still, I work on my character defects, this one with a particular kind of ambition. I am careful though not to get carried away, not to feel shame and embarrassment; I must be careful or else my solution to selfishness becomes increased selfishness and begins a confounding web that nobody could make sense of. It is in this tempered work where I find new tools and new methods to alleviate my character flaws. This work allows me to become a better man, and it takes time.
For me, the “work” that I speak of consists of a few things: I must sit in reflection alone and with another person and continually seek out defects in my character. This is an in-depth and honest look at my motives, actions, and reactions to others. It has to be as revealing as possible, as we have a tendency to layer over our faults to keep from admitting them. Once I come to terms with a character defect, I then begin to search for the reason behind my negative behavior. For instance, if my character defect is an inflated ego I need to address situations where my ego is at its height. Are there certain situations where my ego rises? If my ego becomes inflated when I am on a date, I can easily trace this back to some insecurity. Now I have an inflated ego that is masking an insecurity within me.
I continue to connect the dots to find where these defects trace back to; it is always complex, and the issue is not corrected on the surface. If I find that my insecurity comes from not having much money and, therefore, feeling as though the date won’t be interested in me I have to trace this back; it is not the lack of money that I am insecure about, it is my lack of confidence in my value. It is my belief that I am not good enough for someone to be interested in, but I blame another’s lack of interest in my lack of money, etc. I transfer the responsibility to another person, keeping me free from blame. In reality, all of this comes from my belief that I have nothing to offer, and people will react accordingly.
The process takes patience but perhaps, more importantly, it takes courage and humility. You have to be willing to admit that you lack in areas of your life where you may have previously thought was a strength of yours. It becomes difficult because there are many characteristics of our Self that we cover with so many layers of excuses and lies they become unrecognizable to us. We believe the lie we have told ourselves for years, thus making it even more difficult to accept we are at fault. There are those who judge others harshly and regularly yet if you were to point this out to them they would have a genuine look of disbelief on their face. We convince ourselves so thoroughly that we are not at fault that the mere suggestion we have made a mistake infuriates us. Nothing is our fault, and everybody else is to blame, that is our motto!
The belief that all things external create our current situation is possibly the most damning view of all. Once we give responsibility over to anything external, we lose control over changing our position and later our outcome. We limit ourselves entirely and find comfort in the ability to blame our misfortune on someone or something else. The tragedy is that by failing to acknowledge our responsibility, we will never improve.
This sentiment is heard daily: your day was terrible because of the traffic, your job would improve if your boss were more understanding, you would exercise more if you lived in a more exercise-friendly city, you would eat healthier, but work doesn’t give you enough time, your relationship would be better if your partner were more patient, and on and on go the moans of self-pity and selfish men and women everywhere. We tend to have such a firm belief that somehow the world has conspired against us to keep us unhappy, alone, and exhausted; We prefer to sit still, assume we are the target of a dull life and continue complaining and moaning to the end. It is this belief system that needs to be thrown out and a new one built. To know your motives, your character, and be able to spot when you are wrong you must go through painful experiences and revelations. We grow as individuals by confronting, experiencing, and enduring difficulty in life. When we shy away from this challenge we stay put, effectively moving us backward.
When we examine the Self, we find what drives us to succeed, to want love, money, sex, isolation; we find our motives behind our actions. This discovery is of paramount importance; Once we recognize why we behave a certain way we can determine if we are acting that way for a good reason or with manipulative minds. Often we are confused when someone dislikes us or why a disagreement seems eternal and often it is because we cannot see our part. It is important that we don’t waste energy focused on other people and their responsibility; You do not have any authority over anyone else.
When we explain away years of confusion and cover-ups we begin to notice our real self, and we have a clearer blueprint of how it works best. We take responsibility for the things we can control, and we work to improve them. In my experience, most of this effort, when put into action, is shown in being of service to others. Perhaps not so surprisingly this is where many people find trouble because they cannot see how the act of helping others is improving their life. Even with the work laid out clearly most will return to the surface and work on fixing their appearance. Most will feel some satisfaction from tricking others into believing they are all put together on the inside, but this is another cover-up and another lie. It can yield no real satisfaction and results in episodes of anger, frustration, jealousy, and fear. When you work on the surface alone, you will get surface solutions, and they do not last.
Being of service does not necessarily mean volunteering. When we are of service we are patient with our partners, kind to our neighbors, and helpful to those around us. Being of service means putting your needs behind the needs of others, no matter who that person is. We are patient with others, not asking them to be patient with us. We attempt to understand others without asking to be recognized. We offer assistance without expecting anything in return. We do this because we can improve someone else’s day, and it is time we realize our needs are not of paramount importance. In this process, we can stop forcing life, and allow life to unfold the way it will.
“When will it start working, ” the man asked; For him to pose this question is an improvement by itself. After years of total selfish behavior, he is ambitious about correcting his flaws, just impatient. The reality is that this starts working within us before we can see it, but others see it. Others will begin asking if you are doing something different, perhaps you are on new medication, or you have been exercising. By putting your needs behind others, you slowly teach yourself humility and patience, two extremely appealing qualities. You begin to lose more and more of your insecurities; you find yourself becoming more confident because you know you are living a life worthwhile. You should be proud of this life, and others will be proud before you begin to notice the change.
Most people are turned off by this entire notion, again for selfish reasons. Some will exclaim that it is too devastating and harmful to look at our mistakes; some will say it is an exercise in self-loathing. I don’t know what people do in their minds, and I ought not to be concerned in the least. Some will not see the value in digging up these character defects, an admittance that they are satisfied with whatever they know themselves to be, a mask of sorts I suppose.
I often hear people dismiss this notion without realizing it because it means so little to them; For instance, a man is unhappy with his job and over dinner one evening he unloads all of his dissatisfaction with the world onto the table. He was pigeonholed from day one: father left him young, tore his knee up in college basketball, professors didn’t take him seriously, and he settled for a partner and a regular job. If you were to suggest that he was never forced to end up with an average life and that if he wanted, he could change his life, he would scoff and remark, “Look, I don’t wish to get into a whole existential whatever with you. I’m just stating the facts.” He is, and he isn’t; this life happened to him because he relinquished control and instead of overcoming painful moments in life he took the softer route. If he had an examined Self he wouldn’t need to work so hard to come to this conclusion, but since he doesn’t his argument remains in this short-sighted, “Don’t want to get into it” type of discussion that leads nowhere and solves nothing. It is a useless debate, just as he feels.
For me, to lead a fulfilling life, I must work to understand myself; What I find is that I do not learn much by trying to “figure it out” – rather, I come to know myself by being with others, by giving, not taking. I know that my insecurities, my selfishness, and my lack of confidence hurt me in countless ways throughout life. This is why I work on improving these areas, and it is also why I share my faults with you. There is no shame in admitting your shortcomings; The shame is for the confused and wounded who look you in the eye and tells you he’s not hurt, that he is fine. That is not strength; it is poisonous pride. Each one of us carries a hefty load of character defects and those who admit theirs unload some weight each time. The more work you put in, the lighter the load is – The road ahead is long; choose wisely and go lightly.