“It has always seemed strange to me…the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.”
This quote, uttered by John Steinbeck, evokes mindful pondering about the concept of greed. We think of highly greedy characters, such as Bernie Madoff in his $50-billion Ponzi scheme, or, in general, overly greedy consumers, as in the overinflated housing bubble, all built upon the unrestrained greed of investors, buyers, and lenders. But, as Steinbeck alludes to, is greed ever beneficial? Thinking even further, can we be greedy while still living by the admirable qualities of mankind?
Greed is about an insatiable hunger; never being satisfied with what one has, always wanting and expecting more. Paradoxically, greed originates from too little inner selfishness, evolving from an unconscious appreciation and understanding of one’s self. Think of greed as an addiction. Addicts always want more of what gets them high, gives them pleasure, and enables escape from anxiety, suffering, and even themselves. Throughout therapy sessions, I encourage and challenge clients to identify their addictions, conceptualizing addiction beyond physically observable behaviors such as drinking and drug use, gambling, and binge eating. There are other types of less obvious addictions, though comparably destructive in nature, such as workaholism, people-pleasing, and perfectionism, which are futile attempts at filling spiritual and emotional emptiness. Such barrenness has its origins in unresolved childhood wounds of, for example, being criticized, ridiculed, or neglected. By engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors, we unconsciously strive to avoid the Self.
Many of us struggle to find balance within the spectrum of gluttonous narcissism versus guilt-stricken acknowledgement of nurturing our needs. The key to discovering healthy selfishness — an honoring of the true Self — is essential to self-actualization and emotional healing. So, how can we be selfish in the right way, at the right time, and in the right manner?
Honoring the Self requires the arduous task of being persistent, patient, humble, and committed, rather than falling prey to the neurotic, childish demands of receiving instant gratification and perhaps even exploiting others. This long-term investment produces the necessary inoculation against greed, gluttony, avarice and addiction. The first step is to recognize that it is human nature to yearn for something. It is when we deny and project our own greed that it becomes most dangerous. Secondly, in a nonjudgmental manner, we should listen to our inner thoughts, feelings, and impulses. It then becomes our responsibility to discerningly obey their requests with a mature differentiation of how to satisfy such cravings in a healthy manner. Exercise rather than use drugs. Exert effort into achieving a personal goal rather than having others take care of you, whether it is to satisfy financial, physical or emotional needs.
The bottom line is to summon courage to be selfish about crafting a more meaningful life by being grounded and mature as opposed to constructing a perilous, empty life filled with greed, self-indulgence, and materialism. We live in a society that worships success, celebrity, and money. But, buyer beware, these assets can quickly turn into liabilities if you don’t know who you are.