Have we become more self-centred or is selfishness simply a constant human trait? Is it still possible for us to evolve and be selfless?

RJR: What strange times these are. Strange, selfish and self-centered, in fact. What factors have contributed to make people so wrapped up in themselves that they feel not only the centre of their universe but the centre of everyone else’s as well. What hope do we have when we write a note to a friend saying that we are unwell, or that someone has died and we cannot keep an arrangement, and we get back in response: “No worries”?

NS: In an infinite universe, every organism and, indeed, every part of every particle IS the centre of the universe. As you say, the error is to be convinced that there is only one centre. Human beings appear to have been self-centred since the day they realised they could exploit one another to assist their own survival: and that was quite some time ago. One might argue that that selfishness has become more intense with the passing of the centuries; it certainly hasn’t lessened. Does the problem also stem from humans appearing to be convinced that the universe revolves around humanity? And then the step on from that is that every single human is convinced of their own importance. No human is more important than another; no organism is more important than another. I know it’s a cliche, but hasn’t the huge advance in technology (and with it, increased “choice” and “power”) seen people become more and more self-centred? People can now record and broadcast their every move. In short, they have become the stars of their own ongoing movie. And every one else is a bit-part actor.

RJR: Where to start in my reply? You have made so many important points Nigel, and there is nothing you say, that I disagree with. So let’s take the discussion deeper. We only need to look to David Attenborough’s work to see how self-centred organisms are and how they rely on each other for their advancement. Survival, competition and evolution are all key for the continuation of any species. Humans have indeed, surpassed all of their predecessors because of their determination and ability to endure selfishly without considering their surroundings. I was referring to the smaller picture of humanity’s selfishness within its own species, in this day and age, when we are supposedly more skilled, more refined, more enlightened and informed, more able to communicate compassionately with one another effectively and thoughtfully, and we still mostly chose not to. I would be interested to hear your opinion on this smaller scale, although the more universal perspective fascinates me.

NS: What you say about survival, competition and evolution is certainly key to how humans have turned out – so far. But I think it is also key to the point you are exploring about the “smaller scale” problem of self-centredness. I don’t think there is any separation between the smaller scale and the universal scale. The microcosm actually is the macrocosm. I think the relevant word in what you said is “supposed”. We are supposed to be more skilled, more refined, more enlightened etc, but who supposes this? We do. But obviously we are not. There is as much war, poverty, misery and inequality in this world now as there ever was during the time of humans. The only actual change is on the technological level. The human remains primitive – and, crucially, self-centred. And is it possible that once one has set off on that evolutionary path of self-centredness, it will go to the extreme?

RJR: Extreme meaning the use of all our fossil fuels reserves in the last one hundred years leaving us unlikely to be able to sustain human life on earth beyond another fifty years?

NS: This is the Attenborough view. And even allowing for the fact that he is approaching the end of his own life, and that old men tend to be pessimistic, he is probably right. He has seen more of this world and what we are in danger of doing to it than almost anybody. The selfish – and foolish – depletion of resources for short-term gain, with no thought for the long term does seem to be typical of the human approach. Back at the smaller-scale level, the person who said “No worries” has that same attitude — they are only bothered about how anything affects THEM at this moment.

RJR: So we are in total agreement there. But what can we do about it? If we don’t start with making changes ourselves, we are playing the part of silent witnesses? Surely there is something we can do…

NS: Again you have identified the key, I think. We can’t be silent witnesses. But we can’t change the behaviour of every human being. The only thing we can do is change within ourselves. But does that have any impact on the larger-scale problem?

RJR: Well if we are talking micro and macro levels, then any change we make as individuals must affect the whole? But what changes can we make?

NS: Yes, I think you are right. If the micro level is essentially no different to the macro level, then any change, however small, must have an effect on the world. In fact, at the very moment of that change, the world changes too. What changes can we make? Is it possible that if we see things clearly – for example, really see the self-centredness in ourselves – then just that act of seeing will change us?

RJR: But how many people are really aware? Really have their eyes open? Really want to create change? How many do you know? What changes are you prepared to make, Mr Summerley?

NS: The answer to the first four questions is: none. And that might be the answer to the fifth question, if I am honest. However, change must be possible. Perhaps not as a conscious decision or choice, but through awareness. That is what I was asking you: is it possible that awareness can bring about change in us, and thus in the wider world?

RJR: I absolutely do feel awareness can bring about change. Not enough is being done – it is that simple. I have this fantasy every New Year’s Eve: I imagine that instead of the billions of dollars spent worldwide on fireworks, instead, perhaps every two, three or four years, the funds would go on a campaign and funding to create change in many ways for our planet, for the greater good, for the bigger picture. The campaign could be promoted during New Year’s Eve and encourage people to lead better lives with awareness of their behaviour and its impact on others and on our surroundings. I think if planned and executed in an appealing way, we could take our finger off the self-destruct button and change the world.

NS: I suspect more money is spent on alcohol than on fireworks on New Year’s Eve! But yours is a nice fantasy — although you know it would never work. Enlightenment has to come from deep within. It can’t be engineered from the outside, whether by a well-meaning PR campaign or by politicians or by philosophers or by religions. All of these are bound up so tightly in the very problem of humanity’s failure that they can do nothing – apart from change themselves from within.

RJR: Of course change needs to happen from within. But how many of us are aware of that? How many of us are prepared to take responsibility when we are surrounded by messages that condition us not to do so? It needs to be from within out and from without in, a continuum, otherwise, again, we are just not taking responsibility and we will carry on just as we are, with our finger on self-destruct.

NS: If change can only take place from within, then that is an end of the question – there is no room for alternative or compromise, however much we would like there to be. A compromise, or partial, enlightenment seems to be no enlightenment at all. Or could it be a step in the right direction? The conditioning that predisposes against enlightenment is so strong that we who are caught in it do not appreciate the extent of it. All the philosophers, scientists, politicians and religious leaders are working within the conditioning, talking within the conditioned state, and never even seeing the falseness of the trap they are in. Arguments and discussions go back and forth within a closed unreality, while reality goes on regardless. Are you asking whether each one of must take responsibility for all of us?

RJR: Each of us needs to take responsibility for each of us and all of us, yes. Just like in a relationship each of us need to take responsibility for 100% of our input, our behaviour, our issues – 100%, not 50%. Then the impact of that 100% has an impact on the self, and the whole. What other way forward is there?

NS: I think you have hit on something tremendously important here. Just to clarify, do you mean by 100%, in a relationship, that we need to take responsibility for ourselves AND for the other person in that relationship? Or by 100%, do you mean just 100% of ourselves?

RJR: 100% responsibility for what we bring to the relationship: our past issues, our current dynamics, our behaviour, how we communicate, how we don’t, our unsaids, our stuckness, our projections. I don’t think we necessarily need to bring 100% of ourselves. Space is very important in a relationship and the very nature of the word ‘partner’ implies, our partner should be ‘part’ of our lives. To rely solely on another is more about filling a gap within ourselves rather than two complete people meeting as equals to walk side by side in this lifetime, or at least part of it.

NS: Thanks for clarifying. That makes sense. But what I thought you might be saying takes this a stage further. And I would still like to do that. To what extent do we take responsibility for the other person’s behaviour in a relationship? And is the other person’s behaviour not a mirror of our own? (By relationship, I mean any human relationship or interaction, not just intimate or long-lived personal relationships.)

RJR: I don’t think the other person’s behaviour is a mirror of our own. It might hold up a mirror to us, reflecting the difference in how we see ourselves and how others see us. If we look and listen carefully we will be able to detect the disparity. I am not sure it is healthy to take responsibility for someone else’s behaviour. Surely that creates symbiotic relationships and co-dependence dynamics?

NS: Thanks. I think you have expressed the mirroring thing better than I did. And what you say about codependence also rings true. So does it follow that close observation of the mirror may be the way to clarity and the kind of change that we were talking about earlier?

RJR: The man in the mirror, ie, ourselves, yes. To check in with ourselves and become truly aware and responsible for our own behaviour and its impact on others and our environment. The current ‘no worries attitude’ runs through our every particle and it will be the death of us. In saying that, nature will always endure. Our planet will just create another trajectory.

NS: So perhaps we need to bring about the “death” of us now, ie the death of the selfish “no worries” human. Bring an end to this way of behaviour.

RJR: What is your plan?

NS: Perhaps this is beyond having a plan. The selfish “no worries” human being tends to make plans. There may be nothing we can do. Or is it simply a case of NOT doing what we have been doing for millennia?

RSR: David Suzuki says it is too late. On the contrary David Attenborough responded to Jonathan Ross’s question recently as to whether the planet would be better off without humans by saying ‘we are capable of behaving better than we are doing at the moment, we aren’t fully aware of the consequences of what we are doing most of the time. And if we behave better, we have the power to make everything better for everything else. Which is more than you can say for almost any other species. So we have the potential of making things much better. At the moment we are making it much worse. So it is time we wised up.’ And Ross agreed and said ‘it is time we take responsibility for our actions.’

NS: I think we are talking at cross purposes to a degree. Suzuki and Attenborough are doubtless right on the planetary, environmental level (although what Jonathan Ross says is perhaps of a little less consequence). But I was referring to a possible transformation of the human mind. Could that take place if we stopped, totally, behaving as we have done throughout our history? And even if humanity is now doomed from an evolutionary point of view, is there still the possibility of a transformation, even if it’s just before we hit the buffers? Should we now give up on the possibility of change because we have passed the point of no return? Even at some minutes past the eleventh hour, is it possible that we could end the “no worries” selfish approach to our lives (individual and universal)? In short, could a miracle still happen?

RJR: I am expecting, or relying on a miracle. That would imply that some outside force is going to take care of humanity despite us not taking responsibility for ouselves. And for that outside miracle maker to favour our race and forgive us our self-destructive trespasses. For me it all about each one of us taking responsibility, pure and simple.

NS: Taking responsibility must mean taking 100 per cent responsibility, yes? Not just some responsibility. There is an outside force but whether it has much interest (if any) in humanity remains to be seen. Why would it? What is the difference between a human being and a dinosaur? Or a human being and a worm? The miracle, which I still think is possible, would come from within. Or maybe within-without, as you have referred to previously.

RJR: So what do you suggest? Let’s be practical here. Give our readers something to think about rather than just philosophise….

NS: You’re right. I wonder if it is possible just to wake up one morning and from that point go through the day paying attention to EVERY thing and EVERY situation and thus acting differently… with complete awareness… and never to stop doing that… it seems to me to be the only way.

RJR: It is certainly a start. I think Double Take should be a place to encourage just that!

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