The Difference Between Selfishness and Self-Centeredness

This may be an exercise in splitting hairs, but humor me.

I think there’s a difference between selfishness and self-centeredness. At least in the way I think of them.

I view selfishness as essentially a conscious and intentional act. If I’m being selfish I’m presented with two options, and I essentially understand that I’ve got two options. I could either play golf each afternoon after work (to my wife’s frustration) or I could come home from work and spend time with her. If I choose to ignore my wife’s wishes time and time again, and do what I want then that is selfish.

Self-centeredness, on the other hand (once again, in the way I define it) is far more subtle. For instance, next time you’re at Walmart pay attention to this. Odds are when you drive past an entrance you’ll run in to a self-centered person. This is the person who travels out of the store, finds his or her car which is at a 45 degree angle to the left, and then proceeds across the road, not at anything near a right angle, but on a direct line towards the car. Thus, instead of taking six seconds to clear the road and allowing me and the rest of traffic to continue, it takes fourteen. And if you are taking advantage of that fantastic deal that is Redbox, be prepared. Because you might run into a person who, despite the line of six people behind him waiting patiently, will search the database by alphabetical order and date of release twice each, pausing at each screen for 15 seconds. Only to decide that no movie was to his liking.

Most likely my fellow Walmartians weren’t intentionally and consciously choosing their own good over me. The woman who walks across the street at a 45 degree angle probably didn’t look at me waiting to drive forward and think, “Screw you…you can just wait.” But she and Redbox boy were both so self-consumed they failed to look around and see that there were other people in the world.

When I used to do Junior High ministry at The Crossing our trips had two rules. The first was “Don’t be an idiot” (funny, but unrelated to our present topic) and the second was “Remember that there are other people in the world.” The kids we took on trips were good kids. When presented with the opportunity to be selfless they usually would. The problem was that they rarely looked outside of themselves and realized other people were around and were affected by their actions.

But we’re not Junior High kids, right? Or are we? I once heard a wise old minister say, “We’re all like 8th graders on the inside, we’re just better at hiding it now.” In many ways I think he’s right.

For instance, I’m pretty self-centered but I wouldn’t consider myself all that selfish (see previous definitions). But that’s just because when faced with an obvious decision between selflessness and selfishness I usually pick selflessness. Not for noble reasons, mind you, but because I don’t want to be ashamed or embarrassed.

So in the little moments during your week, remember rule number 2, that there are other people in the world. And let us strive to be selfless people.

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