Immeasurable Life Goals

One night a few weeks ago, I came home from work and had a few things I wanted to do.  I’d promised my parents I would call them, I had to make dinner, I wanted to email my building management about a potential mold situation, there were clothes in the dryer that needed to be taken out, I needed to put in a food order for the upcoming week, the garbage needed to be taken out, the mail needed to be sorted out, there was a dispute in my life I wanted to call and check with the local police about, and I was low on certain groceries.

Nothing in this list had to get done that night.  My parents would understand if I told them I couldn’t talk, so I could totally have ordered in, and just sat in front of my couch and watched TV.  I could have spent the night pretending none of those chores existed.

Of course, I have a long history of procrastination and I knew where that road lead.  So instead, I would try and get a lot of these done that night, and when I felt low on energy or the night was coming to a close, I would decide the rest was better off done later.  I knew what the rational response to this situation was and wanted to execute on it.

The way my body responded, you would think I had decided to fight a bear.  A type of panic set in, my stress levels rose, and I became anxious about finishing this list I totally knew I didn’t actually have to finish.

None of this was helpful.  But it did make me consider something.

In life, we have external measures of success: how much money do we make, how many friends do we have, how attractive are our partners?  The fact that these are externally measurable makes everyone strive at least a little for these – and for some, that’s all they strive for.  Most reasonable people realize that internal measures of success are often more important: how much do we like our jobs, how strong are our friendships and relationships, how satisfied are we with life?

But there’s even subtler internal measures that are easy to overlook.  What I realized about that night was that I was striving towards the external measure of getting my chores done and keeping my life in order.  This is undoubtedly a good goal.  But what I wasn’t taking into account was the internal measure of doing it without going into fight-or-flight mode.  And this was an important and worthy goal in and of itself.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a new year’s resolution that was about an internally measurable aspect like “Get as much done as I did last year but with less stress”.  Or “Find more ways to increase the enjoyment of time I spend by myself”.  I’d guess that is partly because it’s hard to measure these achievements, and partly because these aren’t achievements we can ever show off or be proud of.  But they’re arguably some of the most important goals we will ever achieve.


Two kinds of selfishness

There’s two ways you can be selfish.  The first is the obvious kind: everything you do is self-serving and self-interested.  The well-being of those around you doesn’t matter, whether they be family, friends, or strangers.  Since it’s the obvious kind, this is also the kind that gets called out most often and is near universally condemned.

The second way is a more subtle kind of selfishness.  This is when you do things for the benefit of those you feel close to, while being indifferent to or ruining the lives of those you don’t feel close to.  Think Walter White in Breaking Bad who sells drugs to ensure his family’s financial future; think Michael Schofield in Prison Break who helps dangerous convicts escape to save his brother’s life; think Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars who turns to the dark side to try to save his lover’s life.

Or if you want real life examples, think of everyone who will do much for their family and friends, but won’t lift a finger to help the less fortunate and even work for industries that actively ruin economies, environments, or lives.

The second way of being selfish is arguably better than the first, but it’s also more rampant.  There’s something of a fake moral complexity in there that gives people a pass, a question along the lines of “How can someone be selfish if they’re doing things for the benefit of people other than themselves?”

To answer that, let’s go through a couple of hypotheticals.  Supposes you’re faced with two options: 1) Lose a leg and save a child’s life; or 2) Save 1000 children’s lives.  It’s a sad scenario because either way at least one child will die, and for the decision maker, saving more lives means losing a leg.  But it is clear that Option 2 is the selfless option to take and Option 1 is clearly selfish.

Now suppose you’re faced with these options instead: 1) Save your child’s life; or 2) Save 1000 children’s lives.  This is almost identical to the first hypothetical: either way at least one child will die; the only difference is that this time, for the decision maker, saving more lives means losing a child instead of a leg.  Again, Option 2 is the selfless option to take and Option 1 is selfish – but it’s less obvious now because you can say “It’s for my child!”

There are many who would proudly grandstand about taking the first option: they would say it’s what makes them a great parent and that those who wouldn’t are bad parents.  They would say that it’s love that forces them to go with the first option – and this may even be true!  But it’s the selfish option either way.