Wise Selfishness Rather than Foolish Selfishness

Wise Selfishness Rather than Foolish Selfishness

Credit Miranda Penn Turin

A conversation with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu on the realization that nothing beautiful comes without some suffering.

From The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams

Archbishop, you were talking about how the Dalai Lama has experienced great suffering in his exile. During apartheid, you and your country experienced great suffering, too. And even in your personal life, you’ve dealt with prostate cancer—you’re dealing with it now. Many people, when they get ill, don’t feel very joyful. You’ve been able to maintain that joy in the face of suffering. How have you been able to do it?

Well, I have certainly been helped by many other people. One of the good things is realizing that you are not a solitary cell. You are part of a wonderful community. That’s helped very greatly. As we were saying, if you are setting out to be joyful, you are not going to end up being joyful. You’re going to find yourself turned in on yourself. It’s like a flower. You open, you blossom, really because of other people. And I think some suffering, maybe even intense suffering, is a necessary ingredient for life, certainly for developing compassion.

You know, when Nelson Mandela went to jail he was young and, you could almost say, bloodthirsty. He was head of the armed wing of the African National Congress, his party. He spent 27 years in jail, and many would say, 27 years, oh, what a waste. And I think people are surprised when I say no, the 27 years were necessary. They were necessary to remove the dross. The suffering in prison helped him to become more magnanimous, willing to listen to the other side. To discover that the people he regarded as his enemy, they too were human beings who had fears and expectations. And they had been molded by their society. And so without the 27 years I don’t think we would have seen the Nelson Mandela with the compassion, the magnanimity, the capacity to put himself in the shoes of the other.

And, in a kind of paradoxical way, it is how we face all of the things that seem to be negative in our lives that determines the kind of person we become. If we regard all of this as frustrating, we’re going to come out squeezed and tight and just angry and wishing to smash everything.

When I spoke about mothers and childbirth, it seems to be a wonderful metaphor, actually, that nothing beautiful in the end comes without a measure of some pain, some frustration, some suffering. This is the nature of things. This is how our universe has been made up.

Later I was amazed to hear from prenatal researcher Pathik Wadhwa that there is indeed a kind of biological law at work in these situations. Stress and opposition turn out to be exactly what initiate our development in utero. Our stem cells do not differentiate and become us if there is not enough biological stress to encourage them to do so. Without stress and opposition, complex life like ours would never have developed. We would never have come into being.

Yet it’s one thing to understand the value of suffering, and quite another to remember it when you are angry or frustrated or in pain. So if I were to ask you to take us with you to the hospital or to a doctor’s appointment, and they’re probing you and prodding you, and it’s painful. It sounds like you’re saying you can choose to be joyful even in the face of that difficulty. How do you do that?

I think we ought not to make people feel guilty when it is painful. It is painful, and you have to acknowledge that it is painful. But actually, even in the midst of that pain, you can recognize the gentleness of the nurse who is looking after you. You can see the skill of the surgeon who is going to be performing the operation on you. Yet sometimes the pain can be so intense that you do not have even the capacity to do that.

The thing is, don’t feel guilty. We have no control over our feelings. Emotions are spontaneous things that arise.

(This was a point that the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama would disagree on: How much control do we have over our emotions? The Archbishop would say we have very little. The Dalai Lama would say we have more than we think.)

At some point, you will be in anguish. We are told in the Christian tradition to offer up our suffering and unite it with the anguish and pain of our Savior and thus use it to improve the world. It does help you not to be too self-centered. It helps you to some extent to look away from yourself. And it can help make that anguish bearable. You don’t have to be a believer in any faith to be able to say, Oh, I am so blessed that I have doctors, that I have nurses qualified to look after me, and that I can be in a hospital. That might just be the beginning of moving away from being so self-centered and concentrating too much on me, me, me, me. You begin to realize, Hey, I’m not alone in this. Look at all the many others, and there may be some who are in greater pain. It’s like being put into a fiery furnace to be refined.

(The Dalai Lama jumped in to affirm the truth of what the Archbishop was saying:)

Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness. I do not have as much experience with physical pain as you have. Yet one day I was in Bodh Gaya, the place where the Buddha achieved enlightenment, to begin a series of important Buddhist teachings. Bodh Gaya is the holiest pilgrimage place for Buddhists.

There were around one hundred thousand people who had come to attend the teachings, but suddenly I had intense pain in my abdomen. They did not know then that it was my gallbladder, but I was told I needed to go to the hospital urgently. When bouts of pain struck, it was so intense that I was sweating. We had to drive to the hospital in Patna, the capital city of the state of Bihar, which was two hours away. As we were driving, along the road we passed a lot of poverty. Bihar is one of the poorest states in India. I could see out the window that the children had no shoes, and I knew that they were not getting a proper education. Then as we approached Patna, under a hut I saw an old man lying on the ground. His hair was disheveled, his clothes were dirty, and he looked sick. He had no one to take care of him. Really, he looked as if he were dying. All the way to the hospital, I was thinking of this man and felt his suffering, and I completely forgot about my own pain. By simply shifting my focus to another person, which is what compassion does, my own pain was much less intense. This is how compassion works even at the physical level.

So as you rightly mentioned, a self-centered attitude is the source of the problem. We have to take care of ourselves without selfishly taking care of ourselves. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we cannot survive. We need to do that. We should have wise selfishness rather than foolish selfishness. Foolish selfishness means you just think only of yourself, don’t care about others, bully others, exploit others. In fact, taking care of others, helping others ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life. So that is what I call wise selfishness.

“You are wise,” the Archbishop said. “I wouldn’t just say wise selfish. You are wise.”

Adapted from THE BOOK OF JOY: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by The Dalai Lama Trust, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams.

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