A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses. - Oscar Wilde
The truth, no matter how much we want it to be otherwise, is that we are all selfish, self serving creatures. We start out by seeking food, shelter, and community. Our unique identities and experiences cause us to seek out other things: money, sex, love, understanding, power, acceptance, or success.
Even those of us we might label saints were on some level seeking to fulfill their inner most needs. We might give money to charity or volunteer at a local homeless shelter but when it comes right down to it we do it because it provides us with something. Maybe that something is a belief that we're good people, maybe it's the feeling that we're making a difference in the world, or maybe it allows us to ignore issues we have with guilt and anxiety.
For myself, I like to think that my ideal of putting the needs of others first is a selfless act but on some level it comes back to me. I want to put others first for many, many reasons, including my belief in The Golden Rule, yet it all comes back to my basic needs and desires to listen, to understand, to accept, and to have compassion because on some very basic level I need to be heard, to be understood, to be accepted, and to be shown compassion.
If we are all inherently self-serving then what hope is there for the world?
I think there are two types of selfishness. First, there is the kind that most of us already instinctually adhere to, the kind that seeks out whatever for the purposes of personal gratification. And then there's the second kind of selfishness, the kind that we can view in a bigger context by asking the question: how does this affect others?
I fit snuggly into both categories. There are times like when I want a new book or just some time alone that I'm thinking about one person: me. And then there are other times where I might give someone else a book or respect their need for time alone because I want to see the bigger context, I want to affect the world in a positive way, and I want to challenge my own conceptions what I need at 12:48pm on a difficult afternoon because I've learned that there are times where I must prioritize my needs, categorize them by what is purely self-serving and what is a hybrid of self-serving and loving, and then choose the latter.
It is far from easy.
I think a better world begins when each of us recognize what our needs and desires are, what causes us to act in whatever ways we do, and transform that so what meets our basic selfish needs also provides, in a healthy way, for the needs of others. It's a fine art. It takes time, personal reflection, and honesty. And then it takes action.