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Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others… – Philippians 2:3-4

Manifest plainness, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness, have few desires. – Lao Tzu

Knowledge is hidden by selfish desire—hidden by this unquenchable fire for self-satisfaction. – Buddha, the Bhagavad-Gita

Cling ye to the hem of virtue, and hold fast to the cord of trustworthiness and piety. Concern yourselves with the things that benefit mankind, and not with your corrupt and selfish desires. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 29.

If all the world’s narcissists had a contest to pick an official narcissism slogan, this old saying would probably win: “You have to look out for Number One.”

That well-known idiomatic phrase means “Do what you think is best for yourself, without caring about the impact it has on others.” It most likely originated from and then became popularized by one of these two well-known American authors—Horatio Alger or Mark Twain:

“I’m a poor widder, Mr. Martin, and I must look out for number one. I can’t afford to keep boarders that don’t pay their bills.” – Alger, Rufus and Rose, written in 1870.

Old Man: A man performs but ONE duty—the duty of contenting his spirit, the duty of making himself agreeable to himself. . . . [H]e always looks out for Number One. – Twain, from his essay “What is Man?” written in 1906. (emphasis added)

In his defense, Mark Twain probably meant his Old Man character, who debates the meaning of life with a Young Man in the essay, as a representative of a pretty cynical and self-serving world view.

What do you think of this old saying? Does “Look out for Number One” make sense to you?

The Baha’i teachings—and the teachings of all true religions—advise us otherwise. The scriptures of every one of the world’s great Faiths counsel us to avoid ego and selfishness, to prefer others above ourselves, to seek and develop the virtue of humility. This message, common to all major spiritual belief systems, directs our attention away from our own wants and desires and toward the love of others:

If man were to care for himself only he would be nothing but an animal, for only the animals are thus egoistic. If you bring a thousand sheep to a well to kill nine hundred and ninety-nine, the one remaining sheep would go on grazing, not thinking of the others and worrying not at all about the lost, never bothering that its own kind had passed away, or had perished or been killed. To look after one’s self only is, therefore, an animal propensity. It is the animal propensity to live solitary and alone. It is the animal proclivity to look after one’s own comfort. But man was created to be a man — to be fair, to be just, to be merciful, to be kind to all his species, never to be willing that he himself be well off while others are in misery and distress. This is an attribute of the animal and not of man. Nay, rather, man should be willing to accept hardships for himself in order that others may enjoy wealth; he should enjoy trouble for himself that others may enjoy happiness and well-being. This is the attribute of man. This is becoming of man. Otherwise man is not man — he is less than the animal.

Man is he who forgets his own interests for the sake of others. His own comfort he forfeits for the well-being of all. Nay, rather, his own life must he be willing to forfeit for the life of mankind. Such a man is the honor of the world of humanity. Such a man is the glory of the world of mankind. Such a man is the one who wins eternal bliss. Such a man is near to the threshold of God. Such a man is the very manifestation of eternal happiness. Otherwise, men are like animals, exhibiting the same proclivities and propensities as the world of animals. What distinction is there? What prerogatives, what perfections? None whatever! Animals are better even — thinking only of themselves and negligent of the needs of others. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 42.

Becoming a good, worthwhile, spiritual person means going beyond the selfishness of looking out for number one—it means actively looking for opportunities to meet the needs of others first. It means helping others generously. It means considering your own needs and desires as less and less important. Rather than thinking of yourself as number one, it means thinking of humanity as one. In fact, it means dedicating yourself to the well-being of humanity as a whole:

Every imperfect soul is self-centred and thinketh only of his own good. But as his thoughts expand a little he will begin to think of the welfare and comfort of his family. If his ideas still more widen, his concern will be the felicity of his fellow citizens; and if still they widen, he will be thinking of the glory of his land and of his race. But when ideas and views reach the utmost degree of expansion and attain the stage of perfection, then will he be interested in the exaltation of humankind. He will then be the well-wisher of all men and the seeker of the weal and prosperity of all lands. This is indicative of perfection. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 68.

What could a spiritual person like this—a well-wisher of all men—possibly do about narcissistic injury and rage? As a start, each of us could actively engage people who seem lonely or socially isolated. The simple, loving act of reaching out to others, especially those who seem uncool, friendless and awkward, may ultimately be the kindest thing you can do. People who develop healthy, connected relationships with others are far less likely to become mass killers.

Beyond that, we could pay much more attention to the needs of our mental health systems, and advocate for compassionate, effective care for those with narcissistic personality disorders—and all other psychiatric conditions. Rather than ignoring, denying or explaining away outbursts of narcissistic rage, we could treat it much earlier. Clearly, we have a long way to go before we optimize access to mental health care, medication and effective health insurance. Until we do, our societies and the innocent people in them will continue to suffer when random shooters start firing.

3 Comments

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  • Martha Root
    Dec 07, 2015
    Hi --
    So you're saying that Narcissism is a psychiatric condition, and not a character flaw? It is treatable? And you're linking the mass shootings to narcissism?
    Can Narcissists put on the appearance of being caring and spiritual, say the right things, but still flip-out with rage when their secret behavior is discovered?
  • Dec 04, 2015
    I can't find the quote you attribute to Buddha in either Buddhist or Hindu scripture. The problem is, the Bhagavad-Gita in ancient Hindu - written centuries before Gautama Buddha. Can you please check your sources?
    Otherwise , this like so many others, gives us much to contemplate.