(In honour of genuine selfishness).
I walked onto this land alone, just as we walk onto this planet alone. We are alone. Always. From birth to death. And that solitude terrifies people so deeply, they will put up with the most tedious company to avoid it. Even the word "alone" rattles coldly when said. Aloneness has come to equal isolation, vulnerability, and even danger in the human mind. This may or may not be something inherent in the human condition; we are pack animals, like dogs and lions and. . . and wolves. Yes, wolves are pack animals too. Even so, there are lone wolves. So what about them, the ones that roam wild in the steppes compromising to no one?
Alone, just like so many words, has become clichéd to such an extent, most of us have long lost the essence of its truth. It’s all hearsay and horror stories. If you close your eyes and say the word "alone", which image do you see? A small child excluded at the corner of the room? Cold nights with no one to hold? No one there when you need help? No one caring about you? No one understanding you?
When I walked onto this land alone, one woman, one tent, one wheelbarrow, I felt the cold hand of isolation. I was becoming quite the misanthropist. Human beings were self-serving hypocrites; a waste of space on this beautiful planet, a scourge, parasitic and useless. I couldn’t understand how no one seemed able to face up to the fact that they were, despite their partners and children and parents and friends, alone. Completely alone. No one is ever going to be 100% on our side, because first and foremost they’re on their own side. No one understands another, either. It’s impossible. No one can climb into someone else’s head and body and experience them. We are the one and only who can do that. We are unique. And that uniqueness makes us both incredibly valuable, and alone.
I used to find this abhorrent. What a miserable species we are, I mused. So I took up a pick and a shovel, and hacked myself a space on the earth. My tent pushed up from the dust like a blue blister in a desert of meaninglessness. Days went by. The digging ate my bitterness. The earth sucked in my anger. And I started slowly to shelve the notions I’d learned from books or schools or spiritual philosophies, and opened my eyes to what actually is.
Issues of aloneness are really issues of self. Because there’s a core of us that’s so very precious, and it cries out to be taken care of. I was angry because humans were selfish, but I soon noticed in nature everything is selfish too. Forget this nonsense of saintly trees giving their fruit freely and expecting nothing in return. Presumably, on a mental level a tree doesn’t "expect" in the way a human does, but it is obvious to anyone who works and lives with plants that if you don’t water them or nourish them, a tree will bear you no fruit. A tree takes care of itself first. It makes sure its roots are nice and deep. In fact, no plant will bear you anything unless it has enough for itself. The fruit is a surplus. Animals are the same. With the exception of mothers and their infants, animals feed themselves first, unless they are part of a pack with a hierarchy, in which case they allow the alpha first pick in return for his or her protection.
The problem is not selfishness. Selfishness is natural. The problem is our attitude to it. And the way we attempt to conceal it, because we’ve been told it’s wrong. Some stuff it in a cupboard and bolt the hatch nice and tight. They help everyone and everything else in the hope that they will be liked, or loved, or approved of, or good and not evil. They become thwarted and undernourished. Suddenly, they are starving. And that starvation moves in two ways; excessive greed or oozing resentment. I have been both greedy and resentful at various times in my life. And then there are the others, the sociopaths, who have found the moral high ground of the anti-selfish brigade so hopelessly lofty, they turn the other way, shut off their empathy and go for the capitalist kill. These folk will also tell you selfishness is natural. Yet, they confuse natural self-preservation with exploitation, and there’s nothing natural about that, as a cursory camp in the wilds will soon tell.
Nature is steeped so deep in wisdom, I wonder why I didn’t see it years before. Why did I just listen to the prescribed laws of human culture? Why not just open my eyes? It always seems to take a disaster. Something in our oh-so-fallible human plan has to go dramatically wrong. And then we pause, and ask, ‘Is this really the way?’ My nice little idea of philanthropy had gone wrong. It just didn’t seem to work. So I pulled out of the world and onto my land to think about that for a while.
I have written a lot about nature’s magic, but it has a ‘dark’ side too. I watched aphids rip off baby orange leaves, agama lizards fight for territory, owls pick off rodents, trees I’d planted and watered give nothing in return. One day, Apo the Kangal stole the food out of my little Rotty’s bowl. I wondered briefly if mob rule was our lot. If it’s destiny for the powerful to pulverise the weak. But that’s not how it works in nature. No. Because nature hasn’t vilified selfishness.
Nature is selfish, but up to a point, and that point is the point of surplus. Once there’s enough, be it territory or food, then nature shares around. Agama lizards don’t attempt to expand their territories endlessly. Trees don’t hang onto apricots once they’ve ripened. Owls don’t gorge on rats to the extent they become so obese they can’t fly. That’s the kind of folly humans become embroiled in. And it is because we’ve forgotten the art of being naturally selfish that we have also lost the sense of when enough is enough.
When, after a few weeks, I decided to embrace total selfishness, and do whatever I wanted, I remember an initial shiver of terror. I think it was the anticipation of being shunned by others. Being selfish brings it home. If we are looking after number one, it implies everyone’s looking after number one, which implies, shock horror, that we are all alone. And we are. Whether we tie each other up in marriages, or move into friendships with an underlying expectation of something coming back, it makes no difference. We are alone. And sooner or later we’re reminded.. Perhaps there’s a limit of money or time. Perhaps two friends are both going through a difficult patch simultaneously, and neither can be there for the other. Perhaps we just can’t understand the person we’re living with, or they can’t understand us.
Yet selfishness didn’t work out how I expected, at all. Because three years on, never have I experienced such community! I was inflexible in setting my boundaries. I gave firm instructions that I was not to be disturbed in the morning, and sent people off if they broke the rule. I designated ‘me’ days, and spent plenty of time by myself. The more I did, the more I loved it. Now I enjoy a strong, varied and stimulating network of friends who all know what I’m like, and accept me for it.
So instead of running full pelt away from solitude, and viewing loners like myself as freaks or anti-social or jaded, why not get to the crux of the issue? Have another look at that phantom of aloneness. Because nowadays, for me, when I hear the word ‘alone’ I see a silent star-filled night above me with no one interrupting it. I see a home of mud filled with love. I see space to grow on and on without end. I see zero compromise and boundless freedom. I see utter spontaneity with no need to justify or explain. I see the real me. Not the one who performs. Not the one that fits in to any given social environment. The me that loves peace and mystery and beauty. The well of me I want to sink deeper and deeper into. The sky of me that I want to fly in. And the more I get to know me, the more I love me. Because when I move beyond the voices in my head, the internalised opinions of other people, I find something else deeply wonderful. A light. A warmth. A joy. Call me selfish, but I’m my own best friend.
And then I wake up one day and find I’m full. I’m satisfied. Nourished. There’s a surplus of energy, or ideas or time; a desire to share. So I write a blog, or a book. Perhaps you will pick it off the web, perhaps you won’t. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t sell my soul to create it. This wasn’t an agreement we made prior. It’s just there, hanging like the first apricot on my tree. And if you like the taste, you are welcome to it.
[Many thanks to Brian Crocker for his discussions on the concept of surplus in exchange.]
Atulya K Bingham
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